This week’s US News and World Report has a great article on food—and, in particular, why it’s becoming increasingly difficult to resist overeating.

Although there’s been some recent controversy over exactly how bad obesity is for your health,  it’s now perfectly clear that rising obesity rates are a major public health problem. And the US News article serves as a great reminder that, as important as it may be to emphasize personal responsibility in maintaining healthy eating habits, America’s culture of food—in which high-calorie food is cheap, ubiquitous, and heavily marketed—makes it harder and harder to make healthy choices. The opening paragraph makes  a great teaser for the rest of the article:

It’s everywhere. Tank up your car, and you walk past soft pretzels with cheese sauce. Grab a cup of coffee, and you see doughnuts, danishes, and cookies the size of hubcaps. Stop at Staples for an ink cartridge, and you confront candy bars at the register.

Too true.

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  • Now, the classic approach to public health problems is to locate the points of highest leverage, where a few simple changes can make the biggest difference.  The archetypical example hails from London in the mid-1800s, when a physician traced a cholera outbreak to a single contaminated well:  simply removing the pump handle was enough to stop the epidemic.

    Obesity, however, seems to be a tougher nut to crack than the cholera outbreak.  There are just too many pump handles, too many interrelated causes:  hectic lives mean less time for exercise; jobs are more sedentary; sparsely populated suburbs make walking incovenient, reducing opportunities for exercise in our daily lives; federal farm subsidies encourage overproduction of corn, wheat and soybeans—American farmers produce enough to give every American 3,900 calories per day—holding down the price of starches and oils; ubiquitous food advertising chips away at our resolve.  Tackling each of these issues would be a major undertaking, especially in today’s political climate.  But tackling all of them, to one extent or another, may be necessary to make much headway against the problem.

    One thing that everyone seems to agree on, though, is that to really fight obesity, people need to have better information about how to make healthy choices.  Everyone but me, that is: to me, focusing on education is a bit of a distraction. I know perfectly well that donuts are empty calories, that a donut a week can make the difference between maintaining my weight and gaining a pound or two a year.  And I can resist them 90% of the time.  Maybe 99%. 

    But if someone leaves free donuts in the office kitchen, eventually, my willpower buckles.  Temptation trumps education—not every time, but often enough to make it perfectly clear that the real solution isn’t to fortify my resolve or learn more about the effects of obesity, but to keep the darn donuts out of the kitchen in the first place.

    So the US News article is a great reminder of how thoroughly we’ve surrounded ourselves with donuts.