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Schubart: Obesity

Obesity is a principal driver of health care costs, our nation is obese, and at 350 pounds I, too, am obese. But my doctor tells me that at seventy years old, I’m otherwise in good health.

As a child I was overweight and heard regularly from caring relatives and friends that, unless I lost weight, I would never live to see fifty. I’ve lived in the shadow of that warning and take no pride in my survival or current good health. In fact, I still wish, as I did when I was a teenager that I weighed 100 pounds less than I do.

Apart from established medical factors in obesity like genetic endowment and lifestyle, I credit my survival to a dietary preference for savory rather than sweet food. I love fruits, vegetables and fermented foods like cheese, tofu, yogurt, and sauerkraut. And I’ve come to wonder if the weight itself is less destructive than the dismal American diet one usually eats to gain it. My own weight gain and retention seems to be mostly due to simply eating too much of mainly cheese, good bread, lean meat and fish.

There are three levels for addressing the obesity phenomenon. Medicine puts forth dietary restriction, surgical intervention, and drugs. The most effective current option among them is the most invasive – surgery.

Much better strategies are education and prevention, both of which are gaining ground in school cafeterias, community and school gardens, and food shelves with farm-to-table options and nutrition education.

Arguably, the most promising and least deployed option to fight obesity would be to eliminate government food subsidies for commodity foods, especially the corn subsidy that unnecessarily enriches wealthy growers and processors while ballooning American waistlines. But sadly, it’s unlikely to win the support of those who love to lecture the homeless, the working poor, the alcoholic, or the obese about “personal responsibility” and deny contextual factors like addiction, or limited access to healthy food, health care, or economic opportunity.

Americans consume 150 pounds of sugar a year, that’s 30 5-lb bags, mostly from high-fructose corn syrup. The corn subsidy expands waistlines with sugar, marbles beef with fat, and clogs carburetors with ethanol – leaving me to wonder who exactly this subsidy benefits.

If we’re serious about reducing the health cost of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, we must pay attention to the outdated – perhaps even corrupt – food subsidies and policies that endanger our food supply and blow out our waistlines.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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