Cook Food

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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