The Obesity Epidemic Isn't Just About Willpower

Why tough-love policies to prod people into thinness are bound to fail.

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Meanwhile, public awareness and both private and public policies to drive better understanding of this complex condition should inform potential responses to the obesity problem. For example, sugar is seen as a big culprit behind the epidemic, particularly high-fructose corn syrup. Some call HFCS a supersugar, because it doesn't trigger the same controls on appetite that most other forms of sugar do when they enter the bloodstream. HFCS's spread throughout the food supply has coincided with the rise in population obesity—guilt by association. Hence the interest in going after sugary drinks. However, since this form of sugar is believed to sweeten some 40 percent of beverages and foods, well beyond Coke and Pepsi, why not deal with formulated sugars directly, as we have done with trans fats, by getting the facts, educating people, and developing alternatives? Do this, rather than villainizing or slapping hidden sin taxes on consumers.

[See 5 lessons from the nation's obesity report card.]

And know that the skyrocketing number of overweight and obese people is hardly just an American problem. The World Health Organization has designated obesity as a global epidemic involving more than 1 billion people worldwide. The Europeans have seen a tripling in the numbers of overweight and obese since 1980. In the United Kingdom, over half of the population is overweight or obese. Even in the Netherlands, where people seem to walk and bicycle more than they motor, the medical community is dumbfounded by the problem. Across the developing world, too, obesity has become a major affliction as people move out of poverty.

Something is going on from New York to New Delhi that's deeply rooted in the human condition and strongly influenced by inborn genes and changing environments, which in all humility we don't fully understand. It's more complicated than weak will or sinful gluttony. Solving this problem will take far more than blame.

[Read about the huge toll obesity takes on kids.]