Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Putting Obesity in Perspective

Michael Pollan’s essay in this week’s NY Review of Books offers a framework for looking at modern food and eating.  If public health advocates took Pollan’s perspective, the vitriol of their anti-obesity crusade could turn into a force for real social reform.

Reviewing five books on what he calls the “food movements,” Pollan notes the widespread discontent with contemporary industrialized food production (I’ll call this “American eating,” although its dominance is increasing around the world).  And he suggests that its common theme is cultural discomfort. The food movement, Pollan argues, has “set out to foster new forms of civil society”:

It makes sense that food and farming should become a locus of attention for Americans disenchanted with consumer capitalism.  Food is the place in daily life where corporatization can be most vividly felt…  The corporatization of something as basic and intimate as eating is, for many of us today, a good place to draw the line.

This is a refreshing insight.  It’s thankfully broad, taking  the focus away from health, and therefore from the anti-obesity crusade and the “toxic food environment” view promoted by health advocates.

But Pollan’s perspective is especially refreshing because it renews the conversation about our private lives — particularly the extent to which we’ve ceded our innermost values to the demands of corporate profit and government policies.  And those demands, as Marion Nestle often points out (recently here), are generally linked.

Pollan reminds us that our innermost values are literally innermost:  they have to do with what goes into our stomachs.

I’ve already stated my argument that the anti-obesity crusade is really about control, not health (see here and here).   The crusaders do cite “public health” as a rationale for the war against obesity.  But when they describe what’s wrong, they do so in terms that are sometimes medical (diabetes, hypertension), sometimes technical (serving sizes, calorie counts, the infamous toxic food environment), and sometimes medieval (gluttony, laziness).  Their inability to articulate the source of the problem is a signal that they’re sure something is out of control but unsure exactly what.

The public health approach to obesity is a failure.  It doesn’t let us talk about what needs to be reformed.  And it’s often allied with efforts to make sure the poor stay poor — even though wealth inequality is surely part of the problem in the first place.  The public health industry’s demands for additional regressive taxation in the form of increased “fat” taxes on sugary beverages or high-calorie foods reveal its preference for the status quo.  Make the poor pay more for their soda and fast food; that will make them think twice about supporting industries that are making us fat.

Even well-meaning public health professionals who advocate government intervention against low-price-but-low-nutrition food  as a way of curtailing obesity ignore the central role of food and eating to liberty and happiness — they’re interested primarily in how many additional years of life (however unhappy) could be purchased by trading in the fries in favor of broccoli.  Or, worse, they’re interested only in the dollar costs to taxpayers — in terms of hypertension and heart disease — of tolerating obesity.

Pollan, today’s most thoughtful and insightful philosopher on the subject of food and eating, offers a more satisfying view.  Sure, you may want to change American eating because you think obesity is bad for people’s health.   But you might want to change eating simply because the food scene is distressing, because it crystallizes and exemplifies the many ways that we give over our private (innermost!) moral decisions to the influences of corporate/consumerist thinking.  You might want to change it because, as Pollan reminds us (in regard to a new book by Janet Flammang), the dominance of American statecraft by corporations allows the preparation of food to be relegated to the least valued, least powerful, and lowest paid workers.  You might want food to taste better — valuing pleasure over longevity.

With Pollan’s broad view, you  don’t have to join the anti-obesity crusade.  You don’t have to speak the technical language of risk.  The common language of freedom, desire, and pleasure will do.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 6:33 am and is filed under Behavior, epidemics, Health Professions, Narratives, obesity, public health, Risk, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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