The Skinny on Fat: What the Obesity Debate Gets Wrong

Yesterday KSL reported that half of all Utahns will be overweight by the year 2030. That’s a harrowing figure that should cause panic in anyone who is concerned about public health, fiscal responsibility, quality of life and an array of other things. So, basically, everyone should be worried.

However, the KSL post also includes this reassuring quote:

“We know how to prevent this, we know how to reverse this course if we take the steps that are proven to make a difference,” said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health.

The article then goes on to mention getting 20 minutes of exercise a day, improving school lunch programs, and bolstering physical activity regiments.

However, the article never mentions physical infrastructure — things like sidewalks, bike lanes, parking lots, etc. — that either encourage or discourage physical activity. In other words, the discussion focuses only on the most superficial aspects of being overweight and ignores the fact that city structure is highly determinative of people’s obesity and health.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s article on the same topic also omitted information about underlying causes of obesity.

That’s not to say the ideas mentioned by Levi and KSL aren’t important. They matter and I wholeheartedly support measures to make schools healthier, for example.

But to a large degree these efforts are arbitrary and artificial; if they can be mandated, they can be un-mandated. They’re subject to budget constraints, tastes, politics and fads. As good as they are, there’s an amount of built-in caprice.

The better solution is to tackle the problem at its root.

That means promoting all of the typical solutions, as well as incorporating activity requirements into the built environment. So, it means making schools sufficiently walkable and bikeable that more kids can get around on their own. It means reducing parking and dropoff areas at schools and businesses, so it suddenly becomes less convenient to drive. It means re-zoning neighborhoods to allow for more infill, less parking, and greater mixed use. And of course, it means cutting back on parking.

Widespread obesity is a complex problem that needs big and small solutions. But until we start paying greater attention to more underlying factors there’s no reason to believe the problem will get any better.

Solving the so-called obesity epidemic will require greater attention to the way we get around in our cities and on how much physical activity we engage in as part of our daily routines.

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