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Sugar epidemic 

What the candidates aren't talking about

The debates featuring candidates for U.S. Rep. Lois Capps’ seat have focused on many issues: immigration, homeland security, education, campaign finance reform, the Phillips 66 rail spur, and climate change. But what no one is talking about is the looming health care crisis caused by the supersizing of America. With more than 65 percent of us overweight and half of that group obese, we are unhealthy and that poses a severe challenge to our health care system. 

The health consequences of being overweight or obese—such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes—are straining the private and public systems of care. The increased costs affect the budgets of county and state government as well as federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. When these costs go up, they are passed on to us taxpayers as tax increases. And when the private insurance industry has to cover the costs, the insured pay more in increased premiums, copays for doctors’ visits and hospital stays, and higher out-of-pocket expenses for medicine. 

In case the reader thinks I am pointing my finger at my fellow Americans while holding myself above the fray, I must confess my past transgressions. For many years, mostly in my late teens and 20s, I was an overweight binge eater who was also bulimic. It was a long time before I gained control over the battle of the bulge and changed my diet to more fruits and veggies and moderated my love of French pastries and chocolate. And it was an even longer time before I took up hiking, lap swimming, and yoga. 

But that was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when most people were slim or of average weight. There was (and still is) a lot of social pressure on women to have a good figure, although we complained that the models in fashion magazines were unrealistically thin (and still are). But the social norms were different then and eating habits were far healthier.

Today, I have to wonder what the incentives are to change the unhealthy state of our nation. Mass media, especially television, currently reflects our national overweight condition. On the nightly news, interviewees as well as the journalists interviewing them are often overweight. Advertisements for anything from washing machines to car insurance portray consumers who are chubby. Documentaries on subjects like advances in medicine show shockingly overweight doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. Film and television now have many roles for hefty actors whereas 10 or 20 years ago that would have been unusual. It seems that overweight is the new normal. Conformity has its appeal. Why shape up when most people you know are the same shape as you are?

We are what we eat, and what we have been eating is large quantities of fast food, supersized sugar-laced beverages, and prepared meals loaded with sugar and hydrogenated corn oil. Such food is cheap, convenient, and appeals to our taste buds, but it’s lethal when consumed in the large quantities that have become common. And a good part of this problem lies with federal subsidies of commodities such as corn and soy. Without this support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the food and drinks that contribute to the weight situation wouldn’t be so cheap, and price certainly figures into our food choices.

Back to the political races now heating up. Some localities in the Bay Area have proposed initiatives to tax the sale and consumption of sugar-laden drinks, although I don’t know of any such municipal proposals as yet in SLO County. More access to fresh produce in general and gleaning projects to get such food that might go to waste delivered to people who may not be able to afford it at upscale grocery stores is one approach. I would like to hear more on this topic from candidates for city councils, the Board of Supervisors, mayors, etc.

On the federal level, we have heard from Republican candidates how much they detest “Obamacare” for philosophical and fiscal reasons. Some Democrats have responded by suggesting that weaknesses in the health care law can be fixed. However, no candidate of any party has talked about the fact that federal agricultural subsidies have fueled the “epidemic” of diabetes and other weight-related illnesses. As our population increases and the number of people with such conditions grows, no health care system—whether private or government—will be able to shoulder the costs. The health care system will cease to be viable. And of course, the burdens that preventable diseases place on a growing number of individuals and their families will increase as well.

The candidates running for federal offices should take a hard look at the health statistics and government policies and then address both in the debates. And politicians who are overweight like many of their constituents might serve as role models to the voters if by November they can achieve a slimmer profile. Should that happen, we voters would have to imagine ourselves sitting down to chat with a candidate over an apple and a non-fat latte instead of a fried corn dog and a grande mocha. But that’s a change I think we can handle once our own love handles have gone the way of the dodo. 

Judith Bernstein is a writer living in Arroyo Grande. She has worked for nonprofit organizations and government at the city, state, and county levels in California and Oregon planning and administering health and social services programs. Send comments to the editor at or write a letter to the editor at

-- Judith Bernstein - Arroyo Grande

-- Judith Bernstein - Arroyo Grande

-- Judith Bernstein - Arroyo Grande

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