Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result. In the last few decades, the freedom to eat has too often turned into slavery to the immoderate desire for more.
In the United States, the world leader in obesity, the trend toward higher body weights began more than a century ago. Researchers John Komlos and Marek Brabec show that the average body mass, weight adjusted for height, has moved upward fairly steadily – from too low for optimal health right through optimal to the current too high level. Most visibly, and alarmingly, the gap between the heaviest 30 percent and the rest has widened significantly in the last few decades. There is no end in sight.
The problem of obesity is an adverse side effect of one of the greatest economic liberations ever, the freedom from want of food. Until shortly before 1900, food shortages were nearly always and everywhere a lively possibility, and all too often a grim reality. Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.
This change from shortage to surplus should have provoked a moral analysis. In the old days, the ethics of abundance were almost irrelevant. Moralists chastised gluttony, but for most people necessity imposed moderation, in practice if not in desire. And farmers did not need a course in philosophy to decide to produce as much as they could.
In the new era, physical need is no longer a constraint and unhealthy eating is now an everyday reality. The threat must be countered by individuals, food producers – no longer primarily farmers, but companies with processing plants and factories – and governments. All have failed to live up to the challenge. The result is that food is often not used as it should be, to provide the benefits and pleasures of healthy eating.