Sugar Is An Obesity Scapegoat

Photo by danielygo

To start off, a quick baseball story:

In 2003, the Chicago Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series. (The winner of the series goes on to the World Series.) The Cubs were up 3 games to 2, and leading in Game Six by a score of 3-0, playing in their home ballpark of Wrigley Field. If they held on for another inning-and-change, they'd reach their first World Series since 1945. There was one out, a runner on second base, and Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo up to bat.

To understand the importance of what happened next, you need to understand one of the unwritten rules of the game: If the team you're rooting for travels into foul territory to catch a ball, you better get out of the way and let them make the play. So, when Castillo hit a foul ball into left field, and Cubs left fielder Moises Alou went into the stands to make the play, all of the Cubs fans in the section should have backed up and given Alou as much room as possible to make the catch. Instead, the group in that particular section went souvenir-hunting and became a mass of arms and bodies obstructing Alou's way. And one of the fans in that section, Steve Bartman, ended up being the fateful person who was struck by the ball. Alou failed to make the catch. And while in the ol' scorebook the play was simply called a "foul ball," it was much more than that. It was a sign, a harbinger of doom: The wheels were coming off.

What makes this a story worth telling is that, yes, of course because this is baseball and we're talking about the Cubs here, they went on to give up that 3-0 lead and lose the game and, ultimately, Game Seven. And during that offseason, and the following season, and even sometimes now, Cubs fans have continually blamed that one fan, Steve Bartman, for causing all of their misfortune by getting in the way of Alou's glove. "If only he would have moved," is the sentiment, never you mind the subsequent misplays by actual players on the field. Bartman became a scapegoat, something to be blamed while ignoring the bigger picture of poor management and mediocre players. Which summarizes the problem of having a scapegoat around to pin the crime on: While they may deserve a portion of the blame, focusing on them as the sole responsible party keeps complex problems from getting solved.

And that's how it is with America's obesity epidemic.

Story continues below

When it comes to blame being parceled out, the finger-pointing consistently aims in one direction: Sugary sweets. This means sodas, fruit drinks, that delicious sweet tea so popular down in the South. Most of all, this means the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. (There's even a 238-word section in the Wikipedia entry about Obesity in the U.S. dedicated to "Sweet Drinks".) Which means that keeping down the epidemic is simple: Simply avoid sweets and you're home free. If we need help, American mayors will attempt to remove the sugar for us by instituting their own large soda bans. Because one way or another, this sugar consumption is going to be curbed!

The War On Obesity, then, has really became a War On Sugar. But unfortunately, as this piece by Jane Brody in the New York Times makes clear, sugar isn't where we should be placing our blame.

She quotes a study from the Department of Agriculture which looked at the increase in calories provided by our food supply per day per person. In 1970, this totaled 2,086 calories a day, right near that Daily Recommended Allowance number that's used on food labels. But by the year 2010, that number had drastically risen to 2,534 calories per day per person. The reason:

Most of this rise, Brody contends, comes from the growth of the fast food industry. One of the more interesting stats she points to in the piece is another by the Department of Agriculture, who've calculated that by a person eating just one meal a week away from home, just one meal, it translates to that person gaining an extra two pounds by the end of the year. (Also worth noting: The average American heads out of their home for meals five times a week.)

Now, there's certainly all sorts of caveats that apply here. Certain restaurants are health-conscious enough where they won't cause the same rate of gut-swelling. And if consumers are aware of the insane portions being doled out -- and then taking steps to control those portions themselves by, say, taking home half of their meal in a doggy bag -- that drastically cuts down the ability of the fats and oils to work their evil magic.

But the main takeaway from the piece is that if you think you've "earned" those French fries or burger by forgoing soda for the past week, you're looking at it backwards.


We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading