Wal-Mart Responsible for Obesity?

Wal-Mart the big box retailer is now being accused of contributing to Obesity, heart disease and diabetes! So say the anti Wal-Mart advocates and it’s a shame that the retail giant has to go on the defense once again to defend its business.

I would not normally defend Wal-Mart as I too sometimes feel that the retail giant has a negative impact on small communities when it comes to competition but to blame our countries problems with Obesity on Wal-Mart is ridiculous.

Let us start with the article that seems to have sparked the fires of a now growing debate. A National Post (Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011) headlined “Wal-Mart makes communities fat.” That National Post story details a study by two economists that shows when a new Wal-Mart opens in a community, the community gains weight. The National Post had this to say about the study, which was published in the “Journal of Urban Economics”:

“One new Wal-Mart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store’s opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren’t obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.”

My personal opinion (that and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee) is that there are more reasons for the research numbers being what they are than that of Wal-Mart offering lower prices on the goods that people want and need. There’s really no simple link between Wal-Mart and fat. The extra lift in the numbers may be due to a whole range of reasons, ranging from lower prices for food to a change in buying habits due to influences in advertising and steeper price drops on processed unhealthy foods that can be purchased anywhere.

If we want to start pointing fingers let us look at the many sources of restaurants and fast food franchises who push large portion, fatty, high cholesterol, high sugar and just all around unhealthy foods in the name of convenience and cost.

Our society is obese because we have become lazy and too obsessed with ease and convenience. We want everything now and at the lowest possible cost. We line up at restaurant buffets to pay our $15.00 to eat 37 different selections till our belt buckles explode all the while making comments about the fat people who seem to be piling their plates high and going back 5 or 6 times for more. Yet we fail to notice that we can’t see our toes for the midriff.

Neighborhood design issues are what I suspect play a considerable role in this weight gain issue. As with most big box stores, Wal-Mart is geared towards people driving to the store where years ago we drove into town and walked from store to store. Now days we are able to drive to the discount stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, K-Mart, Target…Long list) to buy loads and loads of cheap stuff that can all be hauled away in the trunk of a car. Many experts have said that having these types of stores pop up in a community can force smaller mom-and-pop shops out of business because they can’t compete on the same scale – thereby leading to less walkable neighborhoods and more driving. Hmmm, more driving, maybe we should blame Wal-Mart for the pollution or the greenhouse effect.

And most people would agree that if you eat cheap processed food while walking less and driving more, you’re likely to get fat.

In any case, the study looked at Wal-Marts and the communities around them between 1996 and 2005. This also happens to be a time frame that we saw a huge jump in fast food franchising including franchises like Krispy Kreme, Fat Burgers, Panago Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza (lots of Pizza franchises).

It just so happens that Wal-Mart has just announced recently in an event attended by first lady Michelle Obama, no less – its plans to “make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.” So maybe all this hype will have a positive spin when it is all said and done.

To conclude I have to get my two cents in and jump up on my soap box. I think it is ridiculous to be blaming big business for the obesity problems our country (and our neighbors….Canada) face. As I mentioned we have become lazy and have lost sight of the need for better health and nutrition. Health insurance has skyrocketed because we all have so many health issues that are tied to our weight and a lack of exercise.

Back in the sixties the president established the “President’s Council on Fitness” and it was part of our schools health program to meet a certain health standard on fitness. We had to be able to run, jump, do pull-ups and a variety of physical programs. Our school lunchrooms did not have soda and candy machines. Each school had a dietitian who had to meet a certain dietary standard for each meal. They might not have been the best tasting at the time but they were real meals with all the food groups. The school system also required physical exercise. You had to have an act of congress to get out of gym or lunch period recess. I won’t go into why we don’t have these requirements anymore as that is subject for another article.

We need to put the blame right where it belongs and that is on ourselves. We need to take an active role in ours and our family’s health. We need to take the time to make meals at home that are well balanced and nutritional. This allows us to spend more quality time with our family as well. We need to get more active and make exercise a part of our busy lives and not as an afterthought to getting off the weight scale. Stop blaming everyone else for not taking responsibility for your own health.

OK, I’ve said my piece and I guess I should get off the soap box, but I must add that it is important that we get our health in order as it will make a big difference not just in our own lives but it will help our economy too as it will lower health insurance costs due to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, vascular disease and many other obesity related problems.

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