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A National Diet For National Pride: Healthy, Wealthy Laws
“I’m lovin’ it” (McDonald’s).
Early man was destined to be lithe and fit – keen on survival and built to find ever elusive prey, prehistoric bodies were muscular and powerful, but also stealthy and deft. The ancestors of the modern millennials were akin to cheetahs in their spryness and power in their hunt for “Providence-given” food – a lack of McDonald’s did not hurt their ability, either. In the unrecognizable, modern world that years of evolution and societal development has led to, humans have all but lost touch with their instinct and the natural athleticism of the surviving fittest. However one may look at it, there are limited directions a society can go in terms of health – and to what extent should the government regulate citizens’ health, given the circumstances and opportunities of the new era? A country should surely instill the virtue of exercise and healthy eating within its cultural atmosphere.
Should nations take more affirmative actions? Should hands-off governments take health matters into their own hands? The answers may lie in the comparison of two industrialized nations that appear to have very different fates for their citizens’ health.
Although health is at times subjective and diet and fitness are a part of an individual’s freedom to decide on his own lifestyle choices, it is clear that Japan’s protective watch over the health of its people, through laws and regulations that keep them robust and thriving, with a primary emphasis on quality of food and wellness, is a standard the overly laissez-faire US should adopt, instead of allowing the primary focus to be on weight loss and appearance, while still continuing to perpetuate consumption of unhealthy, poor quality diets and food.
Countries other than the US have stricter dietary and accompanying wellness policies, deeply rooted cultural traditions, and more modern cultural practices regarding health and fitness. Different cultural practices affect the diets of people from different countries, and therefore influence the overall health of a population. This country, a fast-food-friendly, sweets-loving nation, is on the wider end of the spectrum, literally. The US is the tenth most obese country in the world, with an obesity rate of 31.8% as of 2018. This is a vast contrast from Japan, which has one of the least obese populations in the world. Japan, “The Land of the Rising Sun,” has an obesity rate of only 3.5%, and most foreign visitors will attest to that, reacting to the primarily “thin,” population with surprise. Asians do tend to be at a higher risk of health problems at a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than other ethnicities – and Asian countries tend to focus on acquiring food from more natural and organic resources compared to Western nations, as well. These elements considered and combined make it almost essential and effortless to maintain some of the lowest percentages of obesity in the world. Regardless, there is no denying that being overweight comes with a plethora of health problems, no matter what the race or ethnicity of an individual is (Carlson; Kim).
Because of the necessity of a relatively low BMI for health, Japan has implemented a number of laws to keep the health of its people in check. The Japanese government, for example, has enacted a waist limit for its citizens. In other words, citizens are required to meet or be below a certain waistline measurement. However, the number chosen for the national limit was not chosen without reason – it comes from recommendations from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) regarding waist size range to prevent health problems caused by being overweight. The IDF had established a threshold “ … of 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women” in 2005, which Japan has chosen for their own legal threshold in 2008, when the limit was established as law (Onishi).
There is a lot of misconception surrounding Japan’s anti-metabo laws (metabo is the word the Japanese use for the overweight). People wonder if there are consequences for not keeping health in check. This is true, but those consequences come from physiology, and not the Japanese law. The latter will instead institute a process of giving “ … dieting guidance if after three months [people who exceed national waistline limits and/or are inhibited by their health] do not lose weight. If necessary, those people will be steered toward further re-education after six more months” (Onishi).
When the law was first established, there was quite a bit of backlash. Some people felt anxiety over the idea of being lined up to get their waist measured, or having to go to “ … special check-ups.” Others believed that the overall Japanese people were too skinny for such a law: one such person being “Yoichi Ogushi, a professor at Tokai University’s School of Medicine near Tokyo and an expert on public health,” who “said that there was ‘no need at all’ for the Japanese to lose weight” (Onishi).
While Japan on average meets or is below the IDF threshold, the US is on the opposite end of the spectrum. American men’s waists on average measure just about an “ … inch lower than the … threshold established by the International Diabetes Federation,” while American women’s waists measure “ … about two inches above their threshold.” Contrasting from the population of the Asian Southeastern Islands, the average American is dangerously bordering the IDF’s threshold of a waistline of 40 inches for men and one of 34.6 inches for women (Onishi).
It is not as though the US has been completely silent on the population’s growing obesity rate, however. In 2010, Michelle Obama launched a healthy eating campaign known as “Let’s Move!” to inspire a move toward a healthier America and a decrease in the national obesity rate. The initiative focuses primarily on “ … solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.” In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City attempted to implement a soda ban to promote healthy eating (Eenfeldt; James and Mark-Viverito).
Even so, the US is an independence-centric nation – and the culture circles around a laissez-faire lifestyle, with many Americans advocating for freedom in every area in life. This obsession with autonomy comes from the country’s history – the nation was founded on freedom and has been loyal to the virtue ever since. Especially in recent years, political correctness has even adopted the ideals of independence for certain relevant topics. In the case of weight and fitness, for example, a new movement that (on the extreme end of the spectrum) encourages all body types. The Body Positivity Movement, which began in the 2010s and emphasizes love of all body types and sizes, (and what it is becoming) has become a debatable force in discussions about health, as of late.
It is extremely controversial as to whether or the US should take more action toward the obesity epidemic taking over the nation. Japan is just one example of a country that successfully enforced laws for tackling obesity – and as of 2019, the US has not yet achieved a successful health campaign.
Critics of health laws here in the US believe if the country begins creating and implementing such legislation, the rights of the people (to eat whatever they wish and be however they may be) may be infringed upon. There is also cry that if the country moves toward a “thin-centric” society, in which laws to keep people within a certain size are made, it will be establishing and perpetuating bias and discrimination against people with chunkier frames.
The Body Positivity Movement is especially vehement against the idea of creating health, weight, or size regulating laws. There is a fear that if the US begins to follow after countries that make a certain size mandatory for certain demographics, then the number of eating disorders in America will increase. As of 2019, approximately 30 million Americans from all sorts of demographics are suffering from an eating disorder. People with eating disorders force all sorts of rules and laws onto themselves and into their diets and lifestyles, and there is a worry that if the US relies on restrictive eating habits as law, or instigates a weight and size limit that will only initiate an increase in eating disorders, in order to comply with legislation (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).
The US spends too much money on weight loss as it is, the aforementioned critics will point out. “Americans spen[d] about 66 billion dollars on trying to become thinner.” This money could be used for other things. Perhaps more Americans could donate to charity or they could even invest that kind of money in order to improve their financial situations. One fat activist jokingly stated that the time people use for weight loss efforts could go to deciding whether or not “ … pineapple on pizza should be outlawed” (Welsby and TEDxStanleyPark).
Body Positivity activists and, more recently, fat activists believe that the US’ obsession with weight loss is detrimental to mental and emotional health as it is. Weight loss encouragement is everywhere – subliminally and ostentatiously. This, coupled with rising eating disorder percentages, seems like no coincidence.
The media already enforces enough images of weight loss and dieting for there to be a need for regulatory laws. They are everywhere – skinny models on magazine covers and walking the runway, and exhibitionistic social media influencers boasting their bodies. The Kardashians endorse “Fit Tea” and claim it keeps them thin and encourage fans to follow in their path and buy it. Not to mention, the onslaught of diet and weight loss advertising thrown in citizens’ faces everyday. There are enough examples in media to make people uncomfortable with themselves, to the extent of developing poor self-images and taking harsh actions against themselves for the sake of fitness, for relevant legislation to be necessary (“The Questionable … ‘Weight Loss’ Teas”; Rowland).
Media influence on women’s (and perhaps even men’s) perceptions of beauty and physical ideals have become almost exclusively weight-loss oriented. Things have gotten so bad that “ … 79% of the two thousand women surveyed thought that their social lives would improve if they were thinner [and] 70% believed that overweight people were generally seen as less intelligent and less attractive” (Rowland).
Even children’s programs have these themes. A popular show from the early 2000s, Totally Spies, had a character joke about how convenient it was that she missed a meal so that she could fit down a chimney for a spy mission. This type of dialogue in entertainment targeted towards children and young teens could be harmful to their view of diets in the long run (Totally Spies, Season 6, Episode 1).
Media not only convinces women they need to be thin to be attractive but prevalent images promoted through different sources also contribute to the idea “fat is bad,” and “fat stigma” is a very real thing. A study conducted by Dr. Sarah Domoff, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, concluded those who did not feel the need to lose weight appeared to become malignantly biased against those trying to lose weight in the competitive reality television program, “The Biggest Loser.” This show encourages fast weight loss under extreme and often belittling circumstances and conditions, and according to the study, has helped to perpetuate fat stigma in its own way, by depicting overweight people as animals, until they lose weight (Lucchesi).
There is also the question of what health can be defined as. There are people who can eat absolute garbage on a daily basis and still have an attractive physique because of extenuating circumstances, such as a calorie-deficit achieved through exercise or smaller portions. There are also overweight people who eat healthy and still struggle to lose weight. If the US government was to create and implement diet and wellness laws to lower the rate of obesity in the country, what would the guidelines be? There is a question of whether certain laws would be extended to the demographic of “thin” people who are eating themselves into an unhealthy future (“ ‘Skinny’ … Inside”).
Despite having one of the highest obesity rates in the world, which is still climbing as time goes on, the US has attempted to remedy the aforementioned issue, in the past. The government had attempted to enact health regulatory programs in relatively recent years, but most have been met with distaste and resistance by the people, and failure as a result.
Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign failed due to people crying out about freedom to eat whatever they wish and complaining about the changes implemented in schools regarding diet. The program essentially forced schools to comply, instead of introducing alternatives to the lifestyles and routines offered to children in the past. The campaign also focused on only one aspect of health, as opposed to different areas of health. It also focused on only two approaches, instead of looking at different strategies to achieve a certain result. The campaign did not really focus on reducing the number of health-insensitive businesses in the US: Businesses that manufacture and distribute processed foods and beverages, products with high levels of saturated fats, and with a diabetes-inducing level of sugar still continued to produce their products in the same manner as they had prior to the campaign (Eenfeldt).
New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had also attempted to implement a health-care law through a “soda ban” in which businesses were banned from selling soda that exceeded “ … 16 ounces (473 ml) … ” Although the law was positive in terms of health care, it was predicted to hurt the economy and was criticized for violating separation of powers. Because too much was at stake, the law ended up failing in the end and raised questions about what extenuating circumstances need to be factored into restructuring the US’ wellness culture (Ax; James and Mark-Viverito).
The country appears reluctant to change the dietary culture of the US, which creates obstacles for implementing such laws. It is also important to consider mental health and self-image as well as economic and political matters when it comes to writing and passing laws focusing around health and wellness.
Obesity is just as dangerous as smoking, and if the government reserves the right to take actions against the latter, then the government should also take action against the former. The government has a responsibility to keep people safe and prevent problems for citizens, and obesity is an epidemic. If laws can be created and enforced to lower the percentage of those with this life-challenging threat, the country will be better in the area of health.
Although there is always a fear over the most well-known eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia, there is actually another eating disorder more prevalent among US citizens: “binge eating disorder,” eating extreme quantities of food at one time with no promise of satiety. And in some cases, the same people suffering from this disorder also fast or restrict for a few days to “make up” for the days they had overeaten on (“Eating Disorders”).
There are also other food-associated afflictions that affect the American population. Compulsive eating, for example, is not exactly a diagnosis for an eating disorder, but it is an unhealthy behavioral pattern in which one is unable to resist eating even when over-satiated. It also may be a symptom of food addiction, which “involves the same areas of your brain as drug addiction.” Because foods trigger the reward and pleasure centers of one’s brain, it is parallel to drug addiction in that one can become physiologically and psychologically attached to food in an unhealthy manner, to an extreme extent. The dopamine production triggered by eating is also an explanation for “emotional eating” and the consumption of “comfort foods,” which are just as unhealthy as smoking, when abused (“Compulsive Eating”; “Overcome Food Addiction”).
Media and medical organizations often highlight anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, as well as related restrictive and purging eating disorders, but they seem to rarely address eating disorders that go in the direction of overeating and instead emphasize the latest concocted dieting trends and starving oneself. This overeating can lead to heart problems and high blood pressure, as well as obesity, which only exacerbates any health problems previously acquired through this deadly habit. While only “20%” of people with serious eating disorders (which is “[o]ne in 200 American women…” in terms of anorexia, and “[t]wo to three in 100 American women…” in terms of bulimia) die each year, 300,000 Americans die of obesity every year, which is a stark and startling contrast to the former (“Eating Disorder Statistics”; “Obesity: Facts, Figures, Guidelines”)
Although all eating disorders are serious and need to be addressed, more light has been shed on anorexia and bulimia, as they are almost glamorized by Hollywood as a “pretty struggle.” There should be as much discussion on overeating disorders and what may cause them, how to solve them, as there is regarding restrictive eating disorders (“Eating Disorder Statistics”; “Obesity: Facts, Figures, Guidelines”).
However, it is known the majority of eating disorders are most likely caused by insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, as well as a loss of control in life and a need for control, which is satisfied by controlling one’s diet and eating pattern. This is contrary to what the public is taught. Hollywood and media portrayals of eating disorders are often in line with the belief these disorders are actually the result of wanting to be beautiful as opposed to deep psychological and emotional issues that need to be mended.
Although appearance and wanting to be “thin to be beautiful” is a factor in restrictive eating disorders, it is not the main cause. People with eating disorders are also clearly very unhealthy, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and even socially. The fears of people developing eating disorders as a result of health-centered legislation is irrational, as such laws can actually help develop positive and wholesome eating habits conducive to a happier and healthier lifestyle, in all areas (“Addicted to Control”).
Of course, a surplus of health defects are associated with obesity, to the same degree, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, as anorexia. Both extremities involve heart and blood pressure problems. Obesity leads to hypertension (high blood pressure) and anorexia leads to hypotension (low blood pressure). Both can cause arrhythmia, with the former resulting from a heart beating to fast, and the latter from a heart beating too slow. These are only the tip of the iceberg, but refer to two of the most vital (or in this case, fatal) aspects of health (“Health Risks Associated … Obesity”; “What Is Anorexia?”)
However, health and wellness laws targeting diet and fitness could help to reduce the number of eating disorders and extreme weights in America. If a nutritional, national guideline were to be enforced, one similar to the “Health Pyramid” and “Health Plate,” then citizens of the US would not have to spend so much money on weight loss. The guideline would include a recommended macro checklist for different demographics and would outline what portion sizes to follow of what meals in order to stay full, but not overeat. It would set a standard for healthy living in the US and the goal would be to prevent people from developing an eating disorder toward either extremity.
It would not take a lot of brain power to figure out how to implement these guidelines. Other countries are much better off because of the boundaries they have set for their people. Japan, for instance, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world because of certain practices and laws that their people adhere to. The food most Japanese citizens eat is nutrient-rich and filling. There is a great lack of consumption of fast foods and junk foods (processed products), in contrast to the daily meals of most Americans, which consist primarily of fast foods and junk foods (What I’ve Learned; Smith).
Japan, the same as the US, floods the country’s media with svelte figures and tiny waistlines, but what separates the two is the former also pushes images of healthy meals and lifestyles to the public. In a form of animation, known as anime, most characters eat healthy, full meals and go on long walks. They tend to make it also seem so appealing – mouth-watering food and fun strolls with friends. The same applies to Japanese cartoons, live action, dramas, and overall entertainment media (“Top 10 Anime Food You Want To Eat”).
Walking is also something so easy to encourage. Not only is it good for one’s health, it is also a way to save the environment. If the US were to make healthy living more appealing to its citizens than fast food, weight loss programs, and cars, the country might actually go somewhere with the obesity epidemic: down. That is not to say these things should be banned, just cut down. In fact, fast food could be even better if healthier options were abundant on the menu, instead of fattening, diabetes-inducing burgers, fries, and shakes (What I’ve Learned; HHS Office, and Council on Sports).
If the US were to give less energy to the weight loss industry through the government taking matters into its own hands, the $66 billion used toward weight loss endeavors a year could go to better things – like taxes for free health care that would further perpetuate a health population. If $66 billion were put into such ambitions, Americans could have assigned nutritionists to take care of their dietary problems and would not have to spend their money on weight loss, and the surplus finances from the taxes could go to taking care of people with eating disorders. Fixing one end of an equation often solves others, and if the US were to implement these tactics, US citizens could be healthier and happier than ever before (Welsby and TEDxStanleyPark).
The government worries about public backlash, but the American lifestyle used to be much healthier in the early to middle 20th century than it is today. Instead of moving toward an unhealthy US, the country would be tracing its roots to cleaner dietary and wellness lifestyles and reversing the damage it has caused to so many of its citizens health. Obesity and anorexia were both uncommon before the country took a turn for the worse. The country got used to fast food, it can get used to healthy food. It has gotten used to much harder things to adopt, but those things were also for the better: The Civil Rights Movement, is the quintessential example. Eventually, all new things become normal (Spencer; Breyer).
Positive media influences are essential, to success in uprooting any lifestyle. Fortunately, there are plenty of positive media influences on social media. These people put their best lives on display for the world to use as a model for their own lives. The only way one can learn how to adapt to a new lifestyle is through other people who have done it before them. If these people became mainstream, instead of the Kardashians, advertising quality products, instead of shallow promises, the first mental step into health would be effortless. Instead of glamorizing weight loss and glamorous products, Hollywood could advertise and romanticize health, and the proper weight would follow. Social media are already giving these positive role models a platform and a voice, but it might be time to really put them out there. Changing a person’s mind changes their life, and with the right model, it is a natural thing to do (Arnold; Wong).
Although there have been failures in the past, changing the legal environment is not impossible. The United States simply needs to follow countries who have had successes in the past. Returning to Japan as the primary example, for simplicity, the country had initial backlash against the Metabo Law, but soon it became normalized. If the government involves citizens who advocate health regulation laws and takes into account the opposing views, finding solutions or compromises to quell those concerns, a healthier America could be on the horizon (Smith; Onishi).
Health is a subjective topic, because so much goes into it, but there are some aspects of health that most people can agree on: If one’s life is in danger due to a deteriorating body, that individual is not healthy. Creating health and wellness laws, or at least promoting such movements is the first step the country needs to take in order to reduce the growing obesity rate, and in order to see a brighter America. If the government changes the political and social atmosphere regarding health, and follows the models of countries who have succeeded in stabilizing their people’s health, like Japan, the US will be headed toward a better, healthier future.
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