Critics roundly mocked Michelle Obama’s “nannyism” for her attempts to improve the exercise habits of young people, but new data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the first lady’s concerns are not misplaced. The C.D.C. reports that in just over 20 years the average weight of U.S. men rose 15 pounds—from 181 lbs. to 196 lbs.—and women went from 152 to 169. Eleven-year-old girls gained seven pounds, and 11-year-old boys packed on an astonishing 13.5 more pounds.
The personal toll from obesity in terms of illness, lowered life expectancy and higher risks of diabetes and heart disease are well known, but the problem also produces vast social costs. Obesity is one of the biggest drivers of preventable chronic diseases and related health care expenses. Scolding and shaming campaigns appear no longer sufficient. Sugar taxes, particularly on soft drinks, have achieved results in other nations. Longer and more frequent recess breaks in schools, facilitating employer- or community-based exercise programs and demanding a critical review of labeling laws and food and beverage advertising, especially when aimed at children, are just a few aspects of what should be a comprehensive and persistent campaign against obesity.
Addressing the crisis is not just a matter of good health but also of social fairness. Many people who struggle with obesity reside in low-income communities with the least access to affordable, healthy food and exercise options. And too much of what has passed for science on diet has been the result of heavy lobbying by the food industry. Truly independent research must more honestly scrutinize the U.S. diet. Churches can surely do their part by sponsoring parish-based exercise programs and serving as clearinghouses for reliable information on diet and healthy living.