It's hardly breaking news that junk food is bad for us. But just how bad – and just how much food companies know about the addictive components of certain foods, and just how much they deliberately target the most vulnerable consumers knowing they are doing damage – is still being discovered. The New York Times offers the latest installment in this weekend's magazine with an article about the science of junk food addiction.
Nearly everything written about food in the mainstream media relies on the same narrative: Obesity is bad. That kind of reporting is part of what's keeping us sick.
There's no denying the fact that the American public has gotten larger in recent decades. Along with getting fatter, we've also seen a rise in illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Instead of focusing on how our health is hurting, most of the media coverage uses the term "obesity," making the story more about weight than about health – to the point where it's become an accepted truth that "fat" equals "unhealthy".
That's not actually the case, though. While "the obesity epidemic" may be a convenient catch-all for the illnesses and health problems related to our food chain, it's a lazy term and an inaccurate one. Are we actually worried about public health? Or are we offended by fat bodies that don't meet our thin ideals?
In all seriousness: What good does a focus on body size actually do?
If we're actually concerned about health, then we should focus on health. The addictive qualities of our food, the lack of oversight, the high levels of chemicals and the government subsidies that make the worst foods the most accessible should concern us and spur us to action.
Nutrient-deficient chemically-processed "food" in increasingly larger sizes is bad for all of our bodies, whether we're fat or thin or somewhere in between. So is the culture in which fast food is able to thrive. Americans work more than ever before; we take fewer vacation days and put in longer hours, especially since the recession hit. The US remains the only industrialized country without national paid parental leave and without mandatory annual vacation time; we also have no federal law requiring paid sick days. Eighty-five percent of American men and 66% of women work more than 40 hours per week (in Norway, for comparison, 23% of men work more than 40-hour weeks, and only 7% of women).
Despite all this work, American income levels remain remarkably polarized, with the richest few controlling nearly all of the wealth. In one of the wealthiest countries on earth, one in seven people rely on federal food aid, with most of the financial benefits going to big food companies who are also able to produce cheap, nutritionally questionable food thanks to agricultural subsidies. The prices of the worst foods are artificially depressed, the big food lobbies have enormous power, and the biggest loser is the American public, especially low-income folks who spend larger proportions of their income on food but face systematic impediments to healthy eating and exercise.
With demanding work days, little time off and disproportionate amounts of our incomes going toward things like health insurance and childcare that other countries provide at a lower cost, is it any surprise that we eat fast-food breakfast on our laps in the car and prefer dinner options that are quick and cheap?
Reforming our food system requires major structural changes, not finger-wagging to put down that bag of chips. We need to push back against corporate interests. Food companies are incredibly adept at positing themselves as crusaders for personal choice and entities simply dedicated to giving the public what it wants. Somehow, big food companies have convinced us that drinking a 32oz soda is a matter of personal liberty, and that the government has no place in regulating how much liquid sugar can be sold in a single container.
In fact, we know – and they certainly know – that human beings are remarkably bad at judging how much we're eating. Food companies use that information to encourage over-consumption, and to target certain consumers who tend to have less disposable income to invest in healthy food – poor people, people of color, kids.
Food is a social justice issue that has disproportionately negative impacts on groups already facing hardship. That should be an issue for every socially conscious person. But when looking at the myriad problems caused not only by our big food industry but by the policies that enable them and our cultural norms that incentivize poor health choices, too many people simply turn "obesity" into the boogeyman.
Doctors even blame fatness for all sorts of medical conditions and people don't get proper treatment. Fat women go to the doctor less often for routine cancer screenings, and patients anecdotally report doctors focusing on their weight and ignoring real medical problems like broken bones and asthma.
On the policy side, promoters of laws that incentivize health or push back on corporate food interests such as Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative, bans on extra-large sodas, and extra SNAP benefits at farmer's markets inevitably target "obesity" in their campaigns. That strategy has the effect of maligning the aesthetic of certain bodies instead of encouraging everyone to be healthier and countering the enormous influence of big companies. As a result, many people who should be the natural allies of health-promoting initiatives are put off by the shaming fat language.
"Obesity epidemic" language has also fed into the idea of body size and eating habits as social tribe. Thinner kale-eating elite liberals in the Northeast are trying to force-feed broccoli to heavier real Americans in the South and Midwest. No one wins with that kind of cultural polarization.
Yes, let's push back against big food companies and question their outsized influence in Washington and in our daily lives. Let's focus on making healthy food more widely accessible. Let's realize that the challenges extend beyond just what we eat, and necessitate a hard look at why we make these choices. Let's fight for the humane work policies that will make us all healthier.
But let's do that because public health is all of our concern, not because it's culturally easy to point the finger at fat people. Giving every member of a society the chance to be as healthy as possible is a moral good. It saves money and it saves lives. So let's do it the right way and the most effective way without lazily relying on the word "obesity."