Maybe Americans Need Michael Bloomberg's 'Nannystate' Government

Our obesity problem stems from overconsumption, not necessarily food choice.

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A selection of pastries, including doughnuts, bagels, rolls, croissants, turnovers and sticky buns are displayed in a New York coffee cart, Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

Many of us, even those of us not on the make-government-smaller bandwagon, have something of a visceral reaction to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of super-sized, sugary sodas in restaurants, sports arenas, and other venues. Even if we know a quart of sugar water and artificial flavors isn't good for us, we resent the government—any government—from telling us we can't have it.

But at what point does public health, including the high cost of public health, trump our out-of-control appetites? The country is raising a generation of children with an alarming rate of childhood obesity. That's not a vanity issue; that's a huge public health concern, especially given the cost of treating diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses. It's also a national security issue, since the military is finding it harder to get recruits who are physically up to the task, as obesity is so debilitating.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Sugar is a huge problem, and sugary sodas, nutritionists will tell you, are one of the biggest culprits. Not only is the sugar fat-forming, but the body tends not to treat calories in beverages the same way that it does calories in solid foods. So overconsumption of sugared sodas doesn't lead people to consume less of other foods.

But portion size is also a huge part of the problem, and that may be one place, in the face of a looming public health disaster, where government can step in to exert some control. Americans love to read books about the unfairness of the French, those people who can eat cheese and croissants and drink wine and still stay enviably slim. Here's a clue: go to a bakery on the Left Bank. The croissants will be the size of your palm, and people will eat just one for breakfast. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, the cafes in my hotel only offered croissants and other grain-based items that were big enough to feed a family. There wasn't even an option of buying a roll meant for one person. And how many of us would eat a third of the item (which would be one serving, in most cases) and wrap up the rest? I imagine it was no accident that a number of people in Sin City were getting around via obesity carts—little scooters for people who are so heavy they can't manage to walk through the hotel. Worse, some of the adults had their elementary school-aged children riding in the cart with them, ensuring that the kids will grow up without even that small bit of exercise.

[Photo Gallery: Michelle Obama Promotes Let's Move! Initiative]

Ideally, the consumer would demand that cafes and manufacturers offer food items that are genuinely single-serving sized. But there is also a tendency to think we're getting a bargain if we're getting more—even if "more" ends up meaning more heart disease and diabetes. In an ideal world, government would not have to act like our nannies or parents. But perhaps someone has to.

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