No evidence ‘addiction’ causes obesity; physical activity helps

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Mexico recently passed the United States as the fattest major country, and now America too has a new obesity king.

Louisiana passed Mississippi for the dubious crown, with an obesity rate of 34.7 percent; Colorado remained slimmest with a rate of 20.5 percent. (Texas was 19th, with a rate of 29.2 percent.)

As always happens when these stats come out, people try to explain the discrepancies. The Trust for America’s Health, which published the report, is now using it to justify an agenda that would have the federal government spending taxpayer money to push local laws and regulations reducing consumer choices.

Some activists go further, proposing that alcohol control policies should be a model for “total food control” because restaurant foods and packaged dinners are designed to be “addictive” and “obesogenic.”

But the evidence suggests that marking restaurant foods and packaged treats as irresistible concoctions just like crack cocaine is bogus.

The “addiction” claim is generally regarded as overwrought hype, with researchers from Cambridge University noting that “evidence for its existence in humans is actually rather limited.”

The “evidence” mostly consists of brain scans that suggest people take enjoyment from eating; an obvious fact, not proof of a drug-like “addiction” that warrants government intervention to prevent such enjoyment.

People’s brains also react to enjoyable activities such as working out and listening to music.

In a way, the latest obesity statistics support a healthy serving of skepticism.

Fast food restaurants are supposedly the epicenter of “food addictions” and obesity. But if they caused obesity, Louisiana would presumably have among the most per person and Colorado among the least.

That’s not the case: Colorado has considerably more fast food outlets per person than Louisiana, according to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. A systematic study by University of California and Northwestern University researchers also didn’t find a relationship between restaurants and obesity.

At the grocery store, Coloradans and Louisianans are picking from the same products. The New York Times reported recently that the much-hyped notion that so-called “food deserts,” areas supposedly lacking in grocery options, are little more than mirages when it comes to causing obesity.

In fact, a USDA study found that 90 percent of people who lived in these supposed obesity traps had access to at least one car that can take them to a supermarket.

Moreover, the activists’ command-and-control plan for our food ignores half of the obesity equation: Physical activity matters.

You gain weight by eating more calories than you burn in physical activity, not by consuming supposedly “bad” foods.

And sure enough, Colorado and Louisiana aren’t alike when it comes to going outside and moving around: Centers for Disease Control data show that more than 60 percent of Coloradans meet guidelines for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity per day, while only 42 percent of Louisianans do.

Coloradans may live in a more envious environment for outdoor activity than a Gulf Coast bayou, but certainly that doesn’t mean food’s to blame.

Physical activity offers another benefit that invasive regulation of tasty foods simply cannot: It can be fun.

You don’t have to take after my fellow exercise nuts and do hours of CrossFit and whitewater kayaking to fight fat: Something as simple as walking the dog instead of making it a kids’ chore can make an impact on personal weight.

Unlike an “intervention” designed specifically to make you hate eating, you might actually enjoy it.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

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