Why David Frum Is Wrong About Obesity


CNN contributor and former presidential speech writer David Frum argued on Monday that tackling the obesity epidemic will require that we "alter the way society is organized." Lamenting that America continues to grow fatter, Frum laid blame for obesity on the typical villains (lack of self-control, access to food) and endorsed the same unworkable nanny state solutions to the problem, "reinventing" our modes of eating, for example.

While Frum is correct to suggest that some major societal changes are in order, his proposed changes are the wrong ones. We are capable of living healthy lives on our own, and we should be taking steps to get the government out of our personal lives.

Last week, I argued that the federal government's culpability in the obesity epidemic is often overlooked, and Frum's proposal provides a good opportunity to expand that thesis.

Citing Martijn Katan of the Institute of Health Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam, he argues, for example, that we are genetically disposed to store excess calories as a means of survival. That may have worked well in an environment where food was scarce. But in our modern society, Frum argues, it's a recipe for unhealthy weight gain. That's all very true, which is why the government should quit telling us to eat foods that promote fat storage and keep us eating as a result. 

Ironically, Frum's advice will likely keep this miserable dietary advice in place, since he cites Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity campaign as a positive attempt to solve the problem. The First Lady's campaign tells parents to feed their children a diet based on the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) dietary guidelines. In other words, parents should feed their kids a lot of grains (sugar) and reduce their intake of saturated fat, the same kind of diet numerous experts have demonstrated makes us fat. There is plenty of evidence which demonstrates that willpower is enough to control our weight when we eat correctly. Many thousands of people have abandoned the USDA's advice and dozens of scientific studies attest to this fact. The primary reason is that eating foods that provide the nutrition we need makes healthy decisions far easier. 

But the problems with Frum's position go further than just bad advice. Like most people who think the government should dictate what we eat, Frum blames the declining cost of sugary soda and our increasing consumption of it for obesity. A soda tax is naturally the answer. Conspicuously missing, however, is any discussion of the massive subsidies that the USDA showers on corn farmers: $1.6 billion, according to the Washington Post. Soda is sweetened primarily with High Fructose Corn Syrup, and thanks to the subsidized cost of producing corn, the sweetener is incredibly cheap. So by simply removing federal support for corn producers, the government could discourage soda consumption without enacting another tax on personal behavior. This option is also preferable because it saves us money.

We also need to consider the costs of Frum's giant social engineering experiment. Addressing the obesity epidemic is a useless exercise if the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. And Frum's proposal would "... involve the redesign of cities, the relocation of schools, the reinvention of our modes of eating and amusement." He doesn't offer an estimate of the costs in economic terms, but a government $14 trillion in debt would have to consider the price before embarking on any such project.

The costs in terms of individual freedom are also worth considering. Encouraging weight loss is an admirable goal, but not at the cost of mandating where we'll live, what we'll eat, and how we'll entertain ourselves, especially when there are better, simpler solutions available. What's more, the government has no constitutional authority to make such decisions for the rest of us, a point that should be easily understood by a "conservative Republican" like Frum. 

So, I propose a fundamental societal change in the struggle against obesity: The government should quit giving us bad advice and allow us the opportunity to make good choices without their interference. In the areas of free speech and religious belief, to name two examples, the value of this advice is generally accepted. I propose that the same is true of nutrition. All we need is the opportunity.

Photo Credit: FBellon