Cook Food

a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating

September 4, 2009

“Obesity,” health, and the pro-food movement

This is cross-posted from Feministe; it’s something I’ve been meaning to write for months, but it took the kick in the pants of a high-traffic site to get me to actually write it.

I want to talk about what’s coming to be called the pro-food movement, and one thing about it that has been driving me a little batshit crazy of late. (NB: I am not saying that the topic of this post this is the only flaw in the pro-food concept and prevalent analysis; it’s just the one this post is about.)

But before I do, a little background: pro-food is a term that blogger and sales and marketing guy Rob Smart coined during a Twitter chat in response to an accusation of being “anti-agriculture,” and it’s now starting to be used to loosely define people working toward sustainability in food production. I like the term (so simple! so clear!) and I think the concept is potentially very powerful. (Again, NB: I’m not saying I think it’s perfect. There is often a strong entrepreneurial angle, which means an embrace of capitalism rather than a critique, and when that angle dominates, it means that any talk of accessibility and affordability is just lip service.)

The problem I want to talk about in this post is the way pro-food folks talk about fat.

Big-time writers such as Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have long been beating the drum against obesity, but there was a frenzy of such talk earlier this summer, when the Centers for Disease Control released a report putting the cost of “treating” “obesity” and “related” illness at $147 billion in 2008. (I’ll get to those scare quotes in a minute.) With the healthcare debate heating up and healthcare costs a national obsession (and rightly so), this report was just the spark needed to turn misinformation—otherwise known as conventional wisdom—about fat, food choices, and health into a full-blown fire, with pro-food folks fanning the flames.

The CDC report and articles about it were much blogged, and tweets such as “NPR on body mass index (BMI) credibility: ‘…it is mathematical snake oil’ –So, what do we use to est. obesity???” and “Now that 2/3rds of Americans are overweight, the lethal effects of fat are catching up to those of cigarette smoke”–” and “Obesity debate. Whom to blame? What to do? Atlantic. #profood” made the rounds.

None of the pro-food writers questioned the report or the widely accepted but never proven relationship between body size and health. (Oh, wait: one person did. Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore wrote, in the course of an otherwise mostly excellent post, “The problem is crappy lifestyles, largely crappy diets. You can be thin with a crappy diet, and you might be fat with a healthy diet. If nothing else, calling the problem ‘obesity’ is definitely ignoring all of the thin people who eat absolute garbage…. Skinny doesn’t equal healthy. That said, obesity is easy to measure, far easier to measure than quality of diet.” Does questioning, and then saying it’s too hard to question so I won’t bother, count as questioning?)

Ok, so about those scare quotes. First, obesity is defined by an arbitrary measure. It changes. One reason for obesity’s increase is those changes: sometime in 1998, almost 30 million U.S. residents went to sleep chubby and woke up obese. Second, obesity itself is considered a medical condition, so it’s no surprise that fat people, whose physical being is seen as cause for treatment, incur more medical costs. But that’s not a problem with weight so much as a problem with logic.

Third and most important: The link between fat and poor health is not nearly as straightforward or proven as most people think. Rates of heart disease have been falling as weights increase, so what does that say about the link between the two? Diabetes is correlated with fat, but the cause-and-effect relationship is unknown. Doctors will tell you that fat causes early death, but studies show that people defined as “overweight” live longer than those defined as “normal” weight. And that’s just a quick take. More information is available from the following sources: Linda Bacon, Health At Every Size; Paul Campos, The Diet Myth; Laura Fraser, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry; Glenn Gaesser, Big Fat Lies; Michael Gard and Jan Wright, The Obesity Epidemic; Eric Oliver, Fat Politics.

There are several reasons why I care so much that the pro-food movement seems to be buying the mainstream line about fat. 1) I don’t think the anti-fat bias here is intentional; it seems just to be an oversight, a skipping of the necessary step of skepticism. Which shouldn’t be that hard: this is a skeptical bunch who jump to debunk, say, Big Ag’s claims that genetically modified foods are good for humanity and Big Food’s use of terms like “natural.” 2) So much of what’s being said in pro-food discussions is so very in line with my values, which makes it especially frustrating for me to see the discussions incorporate assumptions about fat that, basically, amount to low-level fat hatred and shaming. 3) The pro-food movement is moving closer and closer to major mainstream attention, and with attention comes influence. People who believe that fat is automatically unhealthy have enough influence already.

And one final point: I am not at all suggesting that diabetes and other illnesses caused by our low-quality industrial processed food supply are not a huge problem. Food and health are indeed completely related and access to fresh food is a ginormous public health issue.

Pro-food folks have an opportunity to agitate in the service of public health. But unless the focus is on actual diseases and not the bogeyman of obesity, the opportunity will be squandered and the damage done by our culture of fat hatred will be increased.

filed under: Recipes & Tips — Tags: , , — lisajervis @ 1:48 am

August 28, 2009

I am in danger of becoming a broken record, but…

Dear Time Editor–

I commend you on Bryan Walsh’s thorough, thoughtful, important cover story on the consequences of our industrial food system. However, Walsh–along with almost everyone in the pro-food movement (as the folks working to change this system and produce food outside of it have been dubbed)–misses a crucial point in his comments about obesity. While processed industrial food does indeed have a huge negative impact on Americans’ health, obesity itself is not the problem. While the medical establishment insists that the cause-and-effect relationship between weight and heart disease and diabetes is linear and straightforward, a growing number of researchers and journalists (e.g., Linda Bacon, “Health At Every Size”; Paul Campos, “The Diet Myth”; Laura Fraser, “Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry”; Glenn Gaesser, “Big Fat Lies”; Michael Gard and Jan Wright, “The Obesity Epidemic”; Eric Oliver, “Fat Politics”) have shown that this conclusion is not supported by the evidence.

If we are to make real improvements in our health system, we must recognize that body size and health have very little to do with each other and treat people of all sized accordingly.

Lisa Jervis
author, Cook Food: A Manualfesto for Easy, Local, Healthy Eating
Oakland, CA

Seriously, this is a great piece, and it has the potential to move a lot of people. I think it’s a eatershed moment in the pro-food movement, because it’s shocking in the best possible way to see a mainstream magazine (and it doesn’t get more mainstream than Time) taking on a powerful industry without pulling any punches. I kept expecting Walsh to water things down or come out with an “on the other hand” series of points defending Monsanto, McDonald’s, and company. But he didn’t.

Except that he totally buys the medical industry line like everyone else.

More on this in that epically long post I am still working on (um, mostly still in my head at this point).

filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — lisajervis @ 3:59 pm

August 16, 2009

More infuriating press on obesity

I’m working on a longer post about the way fat and health are talked about in pro-food circles, but in the meantime, I just read something that really frosted my shorts. Since it’s incredibly unlikely that the New York Times Magazine will print my letter to the editor, I figured I would share it here.

Dear Editor:

David Leonhardt is right to identify cheap soda and expensive vegetables as a public health issue that interlocks with the current health care debate. And while I am relieved to see that he doesn’t, in the final analysis, endorse the idea of overcharging fat people for health insurance (something that should be universal in the first place), I was very disturbed by two elements of his recent article. First is the idea that people are in control of their weight. The truth is that diets don’t work: the multibillion-dollar diet industry and its medicalized support system has never produced a success rate higher than 5 percent. Second is Leonhardt’s unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom that a high body mass index is automatically unhealthy. A growing number of researchers and journalists (e.g., Linda Bacon, Health At Every Size“; Paul Campos, The Diet Myth; Laura Fraser, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry; Glenn Gaesser, Big Fat Lies; Michael Gard and Jan Wright, The Obesity Epidemic; Eric Oliver, Fat Politics) have shown that this conclusion is not supported by evidence.

Lisa Jervis
Oakland, California

I was trying to keep it under 150 words (basically the only chance of being published), but I also felt that it was important to include the citations. Because, let’s face it, whenever you question the fat=unhealthy equation, most people think you’re just making shit up. Seriously.

filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — lisajervis @ 4:34 am