By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: Richmond Times-Dispatch

America is a country of contradictions. And there’s no bigger (ahem) contradiction than one from the recently ended Olympics: We led the world in Olympic medals won while leading all other countries in total overweight and obese population.

According to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures, Mississippi is once again the fattest state in the nation with nearly 35 percent of its residents obese. And once again Colorado, with an obesity rate below 21 percent, is the slimmest state. (Virginia tied with Tennessee for 15th in the rankings, with 29.2 percent.)

And just as in years past, the Trust for America’s Health is highlighting these figures. It has, however, chosen to promote a flawed policy plan as the solution. The plan puts too much emphasis on government restrictions on consumer choice that will not reduce obesity, and not nearly enough emphasis on restoring personal responsibility, which is the only proven strategy for people to lose weight.

The plan claims that “people cannot truly exercise ‘personal choice’ ” when it comes to food. As anyone who has ever walked through the produce section of the grocery store knows, that’s simply not true. If people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, it’s because they don’t want to.

Just like horses and water, you can lead a person to kale but you can’t make her eat it. And because you can’t make that person eat kale without the police power of government, the plan calls for additional regulations like restaurant location prohibitions and sin taxes on soda and other sweet drinks.

To take just one example, these sin taxes are poor tools to fight obesity, because they target only certain (“bad”) beverages, it’s easy to get the same amount of calories from untaxed items. Tax-exempt fruit juice, for example, often has as many calories per ounce as soda. It may be true that juice may have more vitamins — but this is supposedly about obesity, not scurvy.

Researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore found that even a steep 40 percent tax on soda will cut only about 12 calories per day from our diets. (That is the same effect as walking for a few minutes.) And the researchers found that the lowest fourth of households in income didn’t change their calorie consumption in response to a tax of that size.

People, whether Coloradans or Mississippians, are “exposed” to the same foods. And soda is soda whether you buy it in Denver or Jackson. There’s no difference there. So how did we pull off this disparity in obesity rates?

There are differences between fat states and slim states in physical activity. While Mississippians, 33 percent of whom said they engaged in no physical activity at all, sweltering in the Southern heat, might pass up opportunities to move their bodies, Coloradans don’t. That more than 80 percent of Coloradans get some physical activity makes sense when you consider the bounteous opportunities for outdoor sports in the state, from long skiing seasons to hiking peaks.

And even if you’re not an Olympic-class athlete, there seem to be benefits to living in places that promote fitness. It’s no surprise then that a 2009 study from Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis found that living near fitness areas, kickball diamonds, and volleyball courts is linked with lower weight in children. The researchers estimated that living near those amenities could reduce an overweight child’s weight by three to six pounds.

You don’t have to jog or cycle, but engaging in some fun activity that gets you moving can promote both health and happiness. It can even make room for a hamburger, or that famous Southern cooking.