Obesity is the most visible and talked-about health issue in America today, and its prevalence is rising worldwide. It has a profound effect on public health and the economy, to the tune of $93 billion per year in health expenditures (not taking into account lost productivity), almost half of which is paid for by the federal government through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Currently, about 32 percent of Americans are obese, the highest level in the world. As with any other disease, millions of dollars are being poured into the search for a cure.
Earlier this month, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging released a report on their findings that resveratrol, a natural compound found in the skin of grapes and red wine, offsets the effects of a high-calorie diet when given to mice in high doses. But before you start guzzling Merlot, there is a qualifier: To get the equivalent of the daily dose of resveratrol the mice were given, a human would have to drink hundreds of bottles of wine every day — not to mention that these effects have not yet been shown in humans. The study showed that while mice fed a high-calorie diet and no resveratrol quickly developed signs of diabetes onset and liver enlargement and died sooner than mice fed a standard diet, mice given resveratrol along with the high-calorie diet showed no signs of diabetes or liver problems and lived longer, despite gaining weight. This finding could vastly improve the quality of life of those suffering from obesity by greatly reducing its side effects.
Underlying this advance, however, is a culture and a media preoccupied with finding a “magic bullet.” News stories following the study’s release were replete with images of “having your cake and eating it too.” Even competing researchers gushed about the study’s promise: “It’s a fairly spectacular result,” University of Wisconsin medical professor and aging specialist Dr. Richard Weindruch told CNN. “People will go to McDonald’s and afterwards they’ll do super-sized resveratrol.”
But where some see a godsend, I see further evidence of the erosion of personal responsibility and the shift of the search for obesity solutions in the wrong direction.
A portion of the population is biologically predisposed to obesity, but comparing rates of obesity in the United States to those in other countries clearly shows that there is a problem with the food environment in which we live and consume. We are constantly bombarded with food advertisements, and food is available everywhere, conveniently packaged for consumption on the go. The majority of these packaged, processed foods are very unhealthy, high in calories, fat and sugar. These foods are also among the cheapest and are greatly consumed by the poor, who bear a disproportionate obesity burden in this country.
These factors aside, the issue too often left out of the discussion of obesity is personal responsibility. I do not mean to stigmatize people suffering from obesity as somehow being weaker of willpower than the rest of the population. I instead believe that attitudes like Dr. Weindruch’s are dangerous. Just because it is possible to reduce the negative effects of a condition does not mean we should not continue trying to avoid it. Eating a high-fat and high-cholesterol food like a Big Mac would still be unhealthy, even if resveratrol’s benefits in mice could be repeated in humans. Needing another substance to negate the food is proof of its toxicity. A parallel would be the current state of AIDS in the United States. Antiretroviral drugs have made it so that those infected with HIV have greatly increased odds of leading productive and relatively healthy lives, but this does not mean that we should cease worrying about protecting ourselves from HIV infection. It is still beneficial to the body not to be carrying extra pounds.
For those currently suffering from obesity, the results of the resveratrol study may hold the potential for reduced suffering. For others, this is an opportunity to realize the importance of resisting temptation. The idea of a medical safety net down the road might make it easier to live carefree today, but this is not the ideal path. As Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern told the News in October, “Drugs can help, [but] they’re not ideal. People should eat less and exercise more — but if that doesn’t work, then we have to use medical treatment.” Medical treatment is a secondary option; personal action should come first.
Kai Thaler is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.