In the Guardian this week I’m writing about how advocates for healthy food and journalists covering addictive junk food should focus on the bad health outcomes of that food instead of body size. I differ with much of the Feministe commentariat on a lot of food issues, especially insofar as I think the government should absolutely incentivize healthy eating and exercise, and I’m fine with limiting sizes of nutritionally useless, almost-entirely-bad-for-you processed items like soda (I’m also fine leveling taxes on products like soda, alcohol, cigarettes, etc). I prefer positive incentives — letting food stamps count double at farmers’ markets, for example — but I’m fine with doing both. That’s because at a basic level, it is the government’s job to promote the public health. How we eat is central to our health. My issue comes in with the obesity justification. Promote everyone’s health, whether we’re fat or thin or somewhere in between — because bad food is damaging to all bodies, not just fat ones. A piece of the column:
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.
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