About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

We Have an Obesity Problem in This Country.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

According to a recent report, “F as in Fat” by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “The number of obese adults…are on course to increase dramatically in every state in the country over the next 20 years.” According to their analysis of government data, “If obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, by 2030, 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60 percent, 39 states could have rates above 50 percent, and all 50 states could have rates above 44 percent.”

This sobering news has doctors, health care providers and politicians asking the same questions: how do we prevent this scenario from happening, and how do we help people take control of their health?

America has a long history of solving complex problems. And while obesity is a complex problem about which not everything is understood, it is not beyond the grasp of better understanding and prevention. Over the last several decades, many factors have converged: a reduction in the amount of exercise we get (especially children) fueled by sedentary jobs and the elimination or reduction of P.E. in schools; the explosion of entertainment options that keep us indoors; growing safety issues for children that keep them from being outdoors; and a change in our diets that includes an increase in the number of dietary calories; as well as cultural changes that have led to more dining outside the home.

Despite these environmental changes, one thing remains constant: Weight loss and gain is about energy balance – calories in, and calories out. Recently this point was reinforced on NOVA’s website by two obesity experts, Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, who wrote, “The easiest way to prevent weight gain is to eat less by choosing smaller portions, fewer snacks, and healthier meals in general. It also helps to be physically active and to monitor weight status with regular weighing.” They went on to write – and this is important – “Until research convinces us otherwise, we believe a calorie is a calorie.”

These two statements are critical and must factor into the current national policy debate about how we help people understand calories and whether or not government has a role in restricting consumer access to certain calories.

Unfortunately, the hyperbole expressed about why obesity is increasing drowns out reasonable voices in search of workable solutions. One of the loudest and most quoted voices is Dr. Robert Lustig from the University of California San Francisco, who recently said about sugar, “We’re being poisoned to death.”

He calls sugar “toxic,” comparing it to tobacco and alcohol and blames it for the rise in obesity. His number one culprit is soda. (Robert H. Lustig, Laura A. Schmidt & Claire D. Brindis (02 February 2012) Public health: The toxic truth about sugar, Nature, doi:10.1038/482027a)

Variously, despite no actual evidence of causation, soda and even diet soda are claimed to be responsible for heart attacks, stroke, asthma, COPD and even death. Another vocal opponent of soda, Kelly Brownell from Yale University wrote, “To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel. Are we going to have legislation tomorrow? No. But we have to start thinking about this in a more militant way.” (Baltimore Sun, Nov. 17, 1998)

Toxic, poison, militant. I reject this rhetoric in the discussion about obesity and encourage you to do the same. Drs. Lustig and Brownell should know better than to make such comparisons. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University was founded with an initial donation of $7.5 million from the Rudd Foundation – created through the passion of Leslie Rudd with funding in large part from his very successful wineries. Wine contains ethyl alcohol, an addictive substance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study that finds Americans get almost as many calories from alcohol – approximately 100 per day – as from soft drinks. Does that warrant referring to the vineyards of Napa as toxic? (NCHS Data Brief, No. 110, November 2012, Calories Consumed From Alcoholic Beverages by U.S. Adults, 2007–2010)

The risk of singling out certain foods as unique contributors to obesity and then demonizing those foods and advocating punitive (or “militant”) government intervention is that people will tune out the obesity debate at a time when we most need them to listen.

Likewise, regulations that ban soft drinks containing more than 16 ounces lack public support and will do nothing to reduce obesity. New Yorkers immediately saw through what amounts to a gimmick. Americans like choice and the freedom to choose what’s right for them. If they don’t want the medicine being prescribed, don’t believe it will work and don’t trust the doctor prescribing it, progress stalls.

On The New York Times Opinionator blog earlier this year, Ronda Storm, a Florida state legislator, was quoted as saying, “It’s just bad public policy to allow unfettered access to all kinds of food.” And in the same article in The Times, food columnist Mark Bittman wrote, “All of this is part of the bigger question: How do we regulate the consumption of dangerous foods?” Consuming paint thinner is “dangerous.” Let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?

Denmark’s Parliament was hit over the head recently with a big dose of perspective. The country that imposed the world’s first-ever “fat tax” only a year ago was forced to repeal it earlier this month because Danes were driving across the border into Germany to purchase their butter and cheese. Or, they purchased cheaper versions. Attempts to restrict “unfettered access” to high fat foods resulted in food inflation and lost jobs, according to the Danish Ministry of Taxation, but not thinner Danes. Having learned their lesson, Parliament also abandoned a “sugar tax” proposal. Unfortunately, these same failed ideas also permeate America’s national debate.

Whether it’s soda, butter, cheese, wine or beer, no one food is the cause of obesity. For more than a decade, consumption of full-calorie soda has declined 12. 5 percent (Beverage Digest), yet obesity rates have climbed. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 finds that added sugar calories from soda are down 35 percent since 2000. (Welsh JA, Sharma AJ, Vos MB (2011) Consumption of added sugars is decreasing in the United States, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 1-.3945/ajcn.111.018366)

Do the math. It doesn’t add up that soda causes obesity. According to a peer-reviewed data analysis in the American Journal of Public Health, total beverage calories in schools are down 90 percent between 2004 and the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

So why is soda the target? It’s an easy, well-known target that most Americans enjoy in some amount. But that is not a legitimate reason to try and use it as the lever in the debate over how to reduce our obesity rate.

The answer to the question of how we should reduce our obesity rate is summed up well by Dr. David Katz, another noted obesity expert from Yale who is not an advocate for sugar-sweetened beverages yet wrote in The Huffington Post, “As dietary guidance, the vilification of one nutrient at a time has proven as flighty as hummingbirds, propelling us from one version of humbug to another. My advice is to grasp firmly your common sense, and stay grounded.”

Image: Fast food, BKQuadStacker: Mychal Stanley, Wikimedia

Richard H. Adamson About the Author: Dr. Richard H. Adamson, was a V.P.for Scientific and Technical Affairs at the American Beverage Association from 1994 to 2004 when he retired. Prior to employment at the American Beverage Association he was employed at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and for the last 14 years at the NCI he was the Director of the Division of Cancer Etiology and a Scientific Director of the NCI.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 10 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jctyler 12:39 pm 12/19/2012

    “America has a long history of solving complex problems”


    Link to this
  2. 2. jctyler 2:24 pm 12/19/2012

    comment nr 1 should not detract from the fact that the article as such is excellent – it’s just that when non”Americans” read lines like those, well…

    Link to this
  3. 3. HealthHabits 2:45 pm 12/19/2012

    What’s next…an article on the health benefits of cocaine…written by Joaquín Loera???

    Link to this
  4. 4. robroy77 3:41 pm 12/19/2012

    Soft drink consumption directly correlated with obesity rates. Declines in overall soda consumption are down but that does not mean that obese people or susceptible obese people are drinking less sugary drinks as the data is population-level , not individual level (leading to the potential for an ecological fallacy).

    It’s also possible that people switched from soda to vitamin water, gatorades, sweet tea… or, for kids, fruit juice – all drinks with equal or greater levels of sugar than soda.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Crasher 5:44 pm 12/19/2012

    Perhaps obesity is natures way of getting rid of a parasite. Humans have been so successful beating nature to enhance our survival maybe the natural forces that keep the world in balance is using that success as the controller? Obesity was never a problem when there was < billion people?
    Just a thought.

    Link to this
  6. 6. ronyrao 12:56 am 12/20/2012

    See these data are really terrible, now this society people on diets of the increasingly high demand, the high fat food is more and more popular.

    Link to this
  7. 7. PrettyOld 4:55 pm 12/20/2012

    The problem is the food not the people. The food has been damaged by chemicals approved by the FDA. Hormones,HFCS,steroids and more have been approved for you to eat by the Government. It is in nearly everything,
    Why you can’t lose wight was shown here

    Link to this
  8. 8. DavidGillespiesBigFatLies 7:10 am 12/30/2012

    It is great to see someone take a scientist to task i.e Dr Robert Lustig, who prefers to go to the media and not go via the normal channels to prove a scientific thesis. Dr Lustig was taken to task at a recent Sugar Symposium as documented by David Despain (follow the links there to watch all lectures)

    The most telling parts was the Q and A section, which can be viewed here and

    Although many will dismiss the response simply because of who has written it, no one seems to apply the same scepticism to people such as Gary Taubes and David Gillespie who have built their own empires on the back of cherry picking and misrepresenting research!

    We need more sites like to call this people on their bad science!

    Link to this
  9. 9. RichWeav 2:40 am 01/7/2013

    These articles have been popping up quite a bit lately. It is definitely a concern when you look at what the obesity trends in America look like.

    I’m not of the mind that the food is the only problem like some are. The last quote on “staying grounded” was telling. People look to blame one nutrient, or one food type. They never look to see that the lifestyles we lead are not conducive to a healthy body weight.

    Link to this
  10. 10. JunkCarsFL 5:23 pm 01/30/2014

    If you have an urge t lose weight and gain a lot of health points, I recommend watching the documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. I have been using the recipe called Mean Green for a few months and it is amazing. It calls for a high power juicer, kale, cucumber, lemon, ginger, apples and celery. The juice is so filling and satisfying. Try it out.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article