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Lloyd Omdahl, Published July 29 2012

Omdahl: Weighing obesity problem

By a scant 2 pounds, I have slipped inadvertently into the “fat” category as defined by the body mass index. That makes me partly responsible for the 80 percent increase in the number of fat and obese people in North Dakota over the past 15 years.

Some folks are fat because they don’t have the spunk to fight their ancestral genes; others are fat because they were raised on french fries and carbohydrates; still others are fat because they stopped working and kept eating. Regardless of the alibi, fat creates all kinds of public problems.

Treating obese patients is terribly expensive. I heard that an obese person with appendicitis made it necessary for the Williston hospital to call a fracking engineer from the oil field to help find the inflamed organ. Do you have any idea what a fracking engineer costs?

At the Fargo airport, an obese gentleman had to go through the body scanner twice to get total body coverage.

In a fit of mindless courage, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that New York was taking charge of the fat problem by banning soda (pop) sales of more than 16 ounces to kids. Of course, the guzzlers and their mothers protested.

“It’s nobody’s business if we let our kids get fat,” they protested.

Well, that’s not quite true.

First of all, Gallup found that a disproportionate number of less-educated, low-income folks are obese. Carbohydrates are the cheapest food around, so they eat what they can afford. Obesity makes them vulnerable to a variety of illnesses and chronic diseases. Unfortunately, these are the same folks who have no medical insurance.

That means their obesity illnesses end up as charity cases in hospitals, or on the welfare program called Medicaid, or left unpaid in emergency rooms. Since there is no obesity fairy, health care providers have to jack up the charges on all of the other paying customers to cover the losses.

So if one person’s behavior imposes a cost on another person’s wallet, it can’t be said that obesity is nobody’s business. It sure is the business of the person with the wallet.

Bloomberg may think that soda (pop) should be restricted, especially for kids, but he is not conversant with America’s experience with prohibition. Within days of the ban, blind pigs run by 12-year-olds would be operating behind Ben Franklin Elementary, pushing 32-ounce jugs of Coke, Mountain Dew, Pepsi and the like.

The first rule of economics is that people respond to incentives, so maybe we should start there.

Folks who are now fattening up on carbohydrates should be encouraged to divert their tastes to fruits and vegetables. Since North Dakota’s fruit-raising is limited, we should get back to gardening vegetables.

In World War II, everyone was encouraged to raise a “victory” garden. We ran Hitler down a hole with carrots, beets and cabbage. If victory gardens could win the war against fascism, it could win the war against fat.

As an incentive for reluctant gardeners, we should include home-grown vegetables in the next farm bill. After all, farmers are being paid to raise food, so why shouldn’t townspeople be subsidized to raise vegetables? We may have to offer larger subsidies for those vegetables with the fewest calories, e.g. kohlrabi, radishes and lettuce. Nothing for watermelon and potatoes.

We should be forewarned that there are people making big money on obesity. These powerful interest groups will oppose change. They will fight back because they think their bottom lines are more important than all other bottoms around.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com