Mar 1, 2010

Obesifying America

By now everyone knows that obesity is a serious problem in the US. We hear about it in the news on a regular basis. The CDC recently released a study claiming that obesity costs us about $147 billion per year in direct and indirect costs, and the First Lady has made it her personal mission to educate Americans about living a healthy lifestyle (see here).
It's an issue that hits home for me as well. My father is currently obese and trying to lose weight. He's making progress, but his weight has caused him innumerable health problems. He has bad knees and ankles, has a stint in his heart, and takes ridiculous amounts of medicine to keep his blood pressure and cholesterol down and to treat many other diet related problems. It pains me sometimes to see him struggle to move around and do his daily chores. It's especially disconcerting when I think that his dad died of a heart attack at roughly the same age.
With that in mind, I think the focus on obesity and the stigma associated with it is misguided. If we continue to focus on weight and appearance as a determinant of health, we risk swinging the pendulum in the other direction and ending up with an anorexia epidemic.

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Instead, the focus should be on providing access to quality, fresh foods and encouraging a healthy diet and physical activity. But the issue is complex - it's one of the most obvious examples of a biocultural disease (one that involves both biological and social-cultural factors). In his award winning TED talk, Jamie Oliver focuses on a triangle of causal factors - Main Street (i.e. big business), the home, and the school.

The subsidy system needs to be fixed so that we're not making unhealthy food cheap. Instead we should be subsidizing fresh, organic produce and ensuring that it is available to everyone. Currently there are places where people simply can't get fresh food (called "food deserts"). And for those who do have access, it's often more economical to buy the unhealthy processed foods than it is to buy quality fresh food.

Furthermore, schools need to provide healthy meals and should not provide unhealthy foods. I remember when I was an intern at the Connecticut General Assembly. The representative I was working for was sponsoring a bill to ban junk food from schools. It went through several committees and got watered down to the point where it was basically meaningless - it limited the sale of sugary milk drinks and eliminated some (but not all) vending machines. Nevertheless, the Republicans were vehemently opposed to it. They thought that it was an imposition on their ability to decide what's best for their own children. But there is not right to access junk food. If parents want to provide that, then they can pack a lunch. By default, schools should serve healthy meals and not provide unhealthy food as an alternative.

People need to learn to cook again. Ideally they'd learn to garden and preserve their food as well, but that's not necessary. As a college student I see people eat some seriously disgusting things simply because they can't make food for themselves. Instead they eat fast food or heat up a pizza.

In fact, preparing a meal is very easy, but it does require time, and time is an issue as well. A lot of people simply don't have enough time to prepare fresh food every day for every meal. Between work, school, children, and entertainment, it's understandable that people would simply go to the freezer for something to heat up instead of actually cooking.

I think, fundamentally, we need to make it possible and desirable to connect to our food again. We need to be able to know where our food comes from, how to prepare it, and where it's going to. This is a lot more complicated than it sounds, but if we were to accomplish it, we would be healthier, happier, and more environmentally responsible as well.



  1. Hey Jeremy,

    "I think, fundamentally, we need to make it possible and desirable to connect to our food again. We need to be able to know where our food comes from, how to prepare it, and where it's going to."

    I completely agree...we are seriously disconnected, and that creates a whole series of problems. At some point (if it hasn't already happened), people will have NO IDEA what it takes to actually produce food.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see that you're keeping this site going--it has been a bit neglected of late.

    Also, I just read through the post you wrote a week or so ago about writing to wider audiences--that theme is all over the place right now, which is definitely good.

  2. "At some point (if it hasn't already happened), people will have NO IDEA what it takes to actually produce food."

    I think you're right, and I think that for a large portion of the US population that is already the case. It's very disconcerting to know that a lot of people who think cooking means throwing a frozen pizza in the oven. I'm encouraged by things like the local food movement and the slow food movement, but I also worry that they are too tied up in class. For a lot of people fresh, organic food is simply not within their means. I think ideally we would have a subsidy system that promotes fresh, local, organic food rather than processed, imported, chemically-laden foods. With agribusiness being such a major lobby, though, I don't see that happening any time soon.

    I wanted to point out that there's also an interesting post on the topic of obesity on Neuroanthropology.

    The fact that anthropologists are getting interested and thinking seriously about writing for wider audiences is another really encouraging thing for me. I enjoyed your post on the topic as well, and the full run down on Neuroanthropology. One of my short term goals (next year or so) is to get an article published in a popular magazine. We'll see how that goes.
    In any case, I'll keep posting here as often as I can.


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