While everyone else was enjoying the first weekend of Spring 2009, The New York Times was busy writing about food. Three news articles, an op-ed, an editorial, and an expert symposium later, the newspaper managed to mention obesity at least 10 times. Can you guess how many times “exercise” or “physical activity” was mentioned in all of this news coverage? Hint: it rhymes with “hero.”
That’s right: In discussing a health issue that results from a calories-in and calories-out imbalance, the Times focused only on the diet issue and ignored the crucial relationship between sedentary lifestyles and health. That’s like describing a March Madness game and only analyzing the performance of one team. Imagine opening the sports section and reading about how well Oklahoma State did, scoring all of 76 points. They’re on their way to the championship game, right?
Of course, both sides of any equation are equally important. Pittsburgh scored 84 points against Oklahoma. And it’s impossible to understand the causes of obesity without looking at physical activity.
“Full-service grocery stores are often many blocks away and hard to reach,” complained the Times editorial board, “and what’s left are mostly fast-food outlets or chain drug stores selling products that, while cheap today, can extract huge health costs in obesity and diabetes later on.” The Times calls these allegedly deprived communities “food deserts.”
It’s a common myth that fresh food is increasingly inaccessible. Government data indicate that between 1970 and 2005 the availability of fruits and vegetables increased by 13 and 23 percent, respectively. In 2004, the USDA’s Economic Research Service found “127 different ways to eat a serving of fruits and vegetables for less than the price of a 3-ounce candy bar.” In other words, there is no shortage of affordable fresh produce.
As for the alleged link between fast-food outlets and obesity, the Times apparently overlooked the growing body of evidence to the contrary. For example, a study published this year by economists from Northwestern University and UC Berkeley found “no evidence of a causal link between restaurants and obesity.”
On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 43 percent of Americans get less exercise than the federal government’s 2010 recommendation. Is it really a coincidence that the slimmest state, Colorado, reports one of the highest rates of leisure-time physical activity, despite having one of the highest concentrations of fast-food restaurants?
The real problem is not “food deserts,” but “exercise deserts.” And the real health lesson to learn from The New York Times is that we’d be better off setting it down, going outside, and working up an appetite.