Who Ate the Government Cheese?

Photo by Christian Bauer, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Christian Bauer, via Wikimedia Commons

Video games, fattening snack foods and the parents themselves are often blamed for the dramatic spike in overweight and obese kids during the past 30 years or so. But speakers at the National Conference on Childhood Obesity last week in Washington, D.C. attempted to frame the issue in a different light, looking at the bigger picture. They asked the question: Are government and industry responsible for childhood obesity?

While the end goal should not be to find an all-purpose scapegoat for the obesity epidemic (none exists), or merely to shift blame to one party or another, panelists did try to explain how government and industry can affect that ever-important balance of energy in vs. energy out, and what role these entities have in the prevention of obesity and the promotion of healthy food choices. Whether we like it or not, public policies do have an effect on what we eat, so we should at least be aware of how they do so, right?

Dr. Neal Barnard, director of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—the group behind the conference—reiterated the common refrain (if you’ve been to a few of these type of meetings or read books by the likes of Marion Nestle or Michael Pollan) that government food subsidies and dietary guidelines have been more about business and politics than about substantiated nutrition research. As a result, meat and dairy consumption is disproportionately promoted in dietary guidelines—because of the industries’ lobbying power and in spite of the nutritional concerns involving some of these foods.

One particularly interesting tidbit was Barnard’s assertion that the feds have partnered with fast food giants like Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King and Taco Bell to increase Americans’ cheese intake and benefit the nation’s dairy industry. They did this by creating new cheesy menu items, offering special promotions and in some cases even instructing staff to whet the appetite of their customers by asking them if they want cheese on their respective burger, sandwich or taco as they stood at the counter or pulled up to the drive-thru window. Read More >