Attendees sat listening to the long list of unhealthy ingredients in common foods, but when the speaker mentioned pretzels get their brown color from being dipped in lye, a toxic drain-cleaning chemical, an audible gasp arose.
This was just one of many food facts presented at “The Obesity Epidemic,” a discussion held at the Hammer Museum on rising American obesity rates last week.
The lecture addressed growing health and monetary costs associated with the rise in obesity throughout the United States and fueled an active audience discussion on how best to combat the obesity epidemic.
Speakers included Dr. David Heber, chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the UCLA Department of Medicine, and Michael Roberts, director of the Center for Food Law and Policy and adjunct professor of law at the UCLA School of Law.
More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, prompting the nickname “the land of the fat, the home of the couch potatoes,” said Ian Masters, a radio journalist and moderator of the monthly Hammer Forum panels.
Obesity costs the United States more than $200 billion per year in health care costs for related diseases that are otherwise easily preventable, such as Type 2 diabetes, said Heber, who is also a professor in the Department of Medicine.
That number is only likely to climb ““ Roberts projected that by 2018, obesity will be costing the United States $350 billion per year.
Poorer states often have higher obesity rates because healthy foods are generally more expensive than less healthy alternatives.
“Are we to blame the fish, or the aquarium?” Heber said. “Do we hold people responsible for eating the only food available?”
Even in university dining halls, which offer fruits and vegetables to help satisfy daily nutrient recommendations, students can still make unhealthy choices, Heber added.
Many available food choices contain ingredients that can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure, like high-fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils. These ingredients may be present in often overlooked items like ketchup, salad dressing and peanut butter.
The United States takes some measures to encourage healthy eating, like publishing the food pyramid and mandating that calorie contents be listed on menus in some states.
But the government heavily subsidizes industries that produce raw materials for unhealthy foods, like corn and grain crops.
This disparity has led to a convoluted system that separates food policy from health policy, according to Roberts.
“We’re preventing food manufacturers from listing health benefits of their products, rather than encouraging them to explore their beneficial properties,” Heber said.
At colleges, poor eating habits pose a substantial set of complications. Because of fluctuations in blood sugar levels, students may experience reduced energy and lower cognitive function, Heber added.
Theresa Ohanlon, a home economics teacher in southeast Los Angeles who attended the event, said despite the public being aware of the health drawbacks of certain high-calorie foods, most people fail to make diet changes.
“There’s lots of literature out there on health, but people don’t read it. … People need to start acting on (the calorie counts),” Ohanlon said.
Both Heber and Roberts said people are conscious of the health implications of the foods they eat, but act emotionally rather than rationally when it comes to choosing foods.