As President Barack Obama signs the new federal child nutrition bill, flanked by anti-childhood-obesity crusader Michelle Obama, the culture wars have devolved into a food fight—literally. Yet it is a battle in which the political lines are not easily defined.
Unsurprisingly, Sarah Palin has led the fray. In a radio talk show appearance in November, the former vice presidential candidate derided the first lady's "Let's Move" initiative—"the anti-obesity thing she is on"—as practically un-American: "She cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat." Earlier, on a visit to a private school in Pennsylvania, Palin assailed the state's planned school nutrition guidelines that would encourage healthier snacks and fewer classroom birthday parties; she brought a batch of 200 cookies to protest "a nanny state run amok."
Meanwhile, Fox News has lambasted the nutrition bill as big-government interventionism that could nix bake sales at schools.
In some ways, the conservative backlash seems to be more about politicking than principle: Two years ago, Palin herself, as governor of Alaska, championed a state-level health care plan that included support for anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and pro-exercise efforts.
What's more, the initiatives under fire from the right rely mainly on education and persuasion. "Empowering parents and caregivers" through access to nutritional information is one of the stated principles of Michelle Obama's program. The proposed Pennsylvania school nutrition guidelines are voluntary. Arguably, from a true limited-government perspective, even state-backed, tax-subsidized educational efforts to encourage desirable lifestyles amounts to egregious nanny-statism. Yet such efforts are nothing new: They include such conservative favorites as the promotion of abstinence and marriage.
There are several reasons behind the backlash. One is that campaigns to promote healthy behavior have a way of escalating from friendly persuasion to ham-fisted propaganda and prohibitionism. The war on tobacco is an obvious example (though the case for harsh anti-smoking laws was based on claims about the harm of second-hand smoke). Anti-drug zealotry in schools has caused teens to get in trouble for such crimes as sharing an aspirin with a friend who had a headache. It's not completely unreasonable to ask if cookie witch-hunts are next. Some states already prohibit bake sales at schools—even though it is very doubtful that they are a major cause of obesity—and the new child nutrition bill empowers the Department of Agriculture to restrict them if they are deemed too frequent. And some anti-obesity crusaders advocate using the power of the state in frankly coercive ways, from taxing unhealthy food to restricting its advertising.
Those are valid concerns. Yet there are other factors, too. One is an ultra-libertarianism hostile even to non-coercive collective efforts—through education and peer pressure, for instance—to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. In this view, "my body, my choice" means not only that the government shouldn't be able to ban your junk food or ship you to a fat-farm gulag, but that you should be able to gorge yourself into obesity without having to endure societal disapproval or lectures from do-gooders. The libertarian opposition is reinforced by a populist one which regards healthy, low-calorie food as elitist and effete, and hot dogs, Big Macs, and sugar- and fat-laden desserts as the stuff of "real America."
A reality check is in order. Yes, parents have the right to decide what their children eat—but let's not pretend that many of them don't make woefully bad decisions. One-third of American children and teenagers are overweight while nearly 20 percent are obese—a shocking rise since 1980, when the childhood obesity rate was barely above 5 percent. One need only look around to confirm these statistics. The consequences already include a spike in early-onset diabetes and high cholesterol. Things will get worse when fat children become fat adults. While there is some debate about whether the hazards of moderate excess weight have been exaggerated, severe obesity is indisputably associated with a host of health risks—from heart disease and cancer to pregnancy complications.
The costs to society are real, too, and not just under socialized medicine; with private insurance, we still pay for the skyrocketing medical costs of obesity through higher premiums. The often-bandied about notion that people with illnesses related to bad lifestyle choices should either foot their own medical bills or die untreated is—morality aside—simply not realistic. (Ironically, one argument often made by those who pooh-pooh what they regard as anti-obesity hysteria is that the extra health risks of obesity are offset by improvements in medicine.)
Personal choice is a fine thing; but not every choice deserves to be celebrated, particularly when it is more the result of ignorance, habit, and lack of self-discipline—and, sometimes, metabolic disorders—than of consciously trading better health for the pleasures of gluttony and sloth.
The irony, too, is that right-wing griping about the food police can converge uncannily with the left-wing "fat acceptance" movement. This movement, which champions the idea that fat people are an oppressed group and that disapproval of obesity is bigotry, advocates its own nanny-statism—such as demanding that businesses provide special accommodations for obese employees and consumers. It also seeks to stifle politically incorrect attitudes toward fatness. Recently, Maura Kelly, a blogger for the women's magazine Marie Claire, found herself the target of irate blog posts and hate mail after she wrote that obesity is not only unhealthy but esthetically offensive, and something most people have "a ton of control over."
True, the cult of thinness poses its own health risks, including dangerous diets and eating disorders. It is equally true that no one, adult or child, should be treated cruelly because of body weight. But the answer is not to go to the other extreme and normalize, if not glamorize, obesity or the lifestyle choices that create it.
Conservatives have often argued that, in order for a free society to flourish, individual freedom must be coupled with self-restraint. Perhaps some appreciation of this old-fashioned virtue is just what's needed in the debate over food and fat.
Cathy Young is a columnist at RealClearPolitics and a contributing editor at Reason magazine. A version of this article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics. This column first appeared at Reason.com.