Is Obesity Preventable?

I wasn’t going to blog about my annoyance with Shakesville for a while but when I see attacks on Jamie Oliver, one of my favorite chefs, I can’t keep silent. The blog is attacking Oliver for promoting healthy eating and healthy lifestyles:

So this morning I see that professional fat-hater Jamie Oliver has posted a petition which he’s asking people to sign in support of his “Food Revolution,” and in which he’s included the bullshit stat that “obesity in the US costs $10,273,973 per hour” (sure) and notes, in all-caps, “OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE.”

Celebrities who have signed the petition are posted in rotation: Jennifer Aniston, Eva Longoria, P. Diddy, Kim Kardashian, Ryan Seacrest, Ellen Degeneres.

It’s always nice to see wealthy people with access to the best food, comprehensive healthcare, personal trainers, private chefs, and individual nutritional plans put their names to a petition admonishing the fatties that OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE.

Stating the very obvious fact that obesity rates in this country are ridiculously high does not make you “a professional fat-hater.” It makes you a person who states the painfully obvious. You can talk as much as you want about obesity in the US being caused by “natural variation, poverty, and racism”. To do so, however, is to suggest – against all reason – that natural variation, poverty and racism do not exist anywhere else in the world. If they do but obesity doesn’t, then, obviously, something has got to be wrong with this entire line of reasoning.

The idea that only the rich people can avoid obesity is also completely ridiculous. Anybody who has taken the trouble of visiting other, poorer countries (or has at least watched a program or two about them on TV) must have noticed that millions upon millions of people in the world – who, incidentally, can’t even dream about “the best food, comprehensive healthcare, personal trainers, private chefs, and individual nutritional plans” – are not obese. One of the things you notice about the US when you visit it for the first time is the huge number of obese people that you do not encounter anywhere else in the world.

We can, of course, hide our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, and dub everybody who mentions this fact of objective reality a “fat-hater” and an eliminationist. Or we can start asking why a country where people have the standard of living that most of the world cannot even imagine has this great number of hugely overweight people. Until we start discussing the issue and not hiding behind the fake wall of quasi-acceptance, the reasons why this is happening will not be addressed.

The post I quoted then proceeds to compare obesity with homosexuality. Once again, this is a completely specious argument. The number of homosexual people all over the world does not vary from country to country or generation to generation. Nobody is implying, I hope, that you can only encounter gay people in one country during the lifetime of just a couple of generation of people. The terrifying rates of obesity in the US, however, are not shared across cultures and eras.

When I first started living in the US, I discovered that to maintain the same weight I had in Ukraine and then in Canada, I had to eat almost twice as little. When I moved to the Midwest, things got even worse. Something is wrong with the food (and the lifestyles) in this area. Of course, until we realize that American obesity isn’t just something that happens naturally, we will not be able even to begin finding out what it is that is wrong with the food we eat and the lifestyles we lead.

41 thoughts on “Is Obesity Preventable?”

  1. To do so, however, is to deny – against all reason – that natural variation, poverty and racism do not exist anywhere else in the world.

    To deny that something does not exist is to assert that it does, in fact, exist. To deny that it exists is to assert that it does not. This is a double negative instance that I think cannot be refuted. If you say “x does not exist” and I reply “I disagree with you” I am not agreeing with you.

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  2. I live in a wealthy, mostly white suburb of Houston and based on my experiences elsewhere it’s hard for me to accept the claim that the high obesity rate here at least could be linked to “natural variation, poverty, and racism.” I’d expect it has more to do with the incredible density of eateries that serve huge portions of fried sugary foods.

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      1. Actually, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a really good read–and in the third part he learns how to hunt boar, so it can’t be THAT pro-veggie! 🙂

        I highly recommend it. A little scary, but very good.

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  3. Mexico has an even higher rate of diabetes than does the USA. Some of Mexico’s high rate may be due to the strong genetic propensity of some border Southwest USA/Northern Mexico Indian communities, and their genetic contribution to the mixed heritage majority. Most of Mexico’s high rate is attributable to consumption of large amounts of cane-sugar sodas and consequent obesity.

    There is some point to noting the association of obesity with poverty. In the US, where the sugar and corn syrup industry has been highly subsidized by the federal government (by tax exemption or direct payment), high sugar foods are very cheap, very filling, and have a long shelf life with preservatives added. Dollar for dollar, cheap sugar is more filling than fresh produce.

    Some poor people do not have easy access to grocery stores that stock good quality produce and are on a bus line. Imagine having to walk a quarter of a mile to ride the bus with two or three toddlers, transfer buses once, shop, take the two buses to home stop, and walk another quarter of a mile in a lousy neighborhood. The mother with kids in tow has to worry about them running off and getting hit by a car, in addition to lugging the food. I can get good fresh produce by walking two blocks in a safe neighborhood (side street, low traffic, little street crime and that non-violent), and if I am lazy or coming from work, I can use a car.

    Middle-income Americans have no excuse for not eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables. Most middle-income Europeans incorporate some walking in their daily routine. In the USA, it is uncommon to walk to work, grocery store, dry cleaners, hardware store, library, post office, other errands. This is a car culture. Facilities in suburbs may be miles away. As it happens, I live in a city neighborhood that has a good grocery store, good public library branch, good book store, good clothing store, dry cleaners, large number of restaurants and bars, etc within 1 mile, and the hardware store and post office within 2 miles.

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  4. “In the US, where the sugar and corn syrup industry has been highly subsidized by the federal government (by tax exemption or direct payment), high sugar foods are very cheap, very filling, and have a long shelf life with preservatives added. Dollar for dollar, cheap sugar is more filling than fresh produce. ”

    Absolutely! These subsidizing is even worse than subsidizing of meat.

    And there’s also the fucking crap about “Fat is worse than carbohydrates” which is utterly false.

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    1. “And there’s also the fucking crap about “Fat is worse than carbohydrates” which is utterly false.”

      -Exactly! It seems like this thread is not destined to become controversial because everybody agrees with everybody else. 🙂

      The subsidizing of the corn syrup industry is a crime against humanity. And I’m not exaggerating. That is exactly what I think about it.

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  5. If I might get back to Melissa’s post for a minute from this absorbing dissection: Melissa is angry that systemic causes of obesity in the US are suppressed by a culture that insists obesity is caused by individual laziness… AND she is furious that Jamie Oliver wishes to address some of these systemic causes?

    Stop reading this blog, is my advice to you.

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    1. Good point!! 🙂 Where is the logic, I ask you, where is the logic?

      I still follow this blog because it never fails to wake me up in the morning. I get so angry from reading it that I run into the classroom all energized. I save on coffee, too. 🙂

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  6. I would say that the American attitude towards eating and health is a big contributor as well. Americans moralize their food, something I’ve noticed is absent in Canada, which is a matter of eating when they are hungry. Americans will ask them questions like “Will I be good and have a salad, or bad and have a brownie?” They usually ask whether they were “good” today and therefore “deserve” a forbidden treat.
    They spend a lot of time arguing with themselves over food, rather than eating what feels right because they are hungry. I didn’t even think about it until after I had recovered from my eating disorder and paid close attention to how I ate so I wouldn’t relapse, but it’s become more and more evident since I left the states, and it’s quite screwy.

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    1. This is so true! I call this “emotional masturbation around food.”

      I keep hearing people say, “OMG, I just did something horrible! I ate a piece of cake!” Seriously, if that’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever done, you are one fantastic human being.

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      1. A food desert is an area where getting good quality food is an accessibility issue, such as there being no grocery stores for several miles around, and what’s available is either expensive or unhealthy. Frequent food deserts are inner city ghettoes and Indian reservations.

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        1. Oh, I get it now. That is, indeed, a really really huge issue. There are many places that I have seen where people who don’t have money for a car have to buy their food from a convenience store or a junk food place because they can’t get to the nearest grocery store. This is why they don’t even see an apple or an orange for months on end. 😦

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  7. I found it interesting that she said there is no way to prevent obesity, and then went on to list a bunch of the preventable causes of obesity.

    I mean, it’s one thing to debunk common myths about obesity and to combat fat hatred; it’s another entirely to pretend that there are no human causes of it, or no health effects attributed correctly to it.

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  8. I’m shocked at the sanity I’m finding in the comments here. You have some intelligent readers, Clarissa.

    Of course obesity is preventable, but (I think) not always in ways that individuals can sufficiently control. And sometimes, let’s be honest, the people who have the least amount of actual control over their food + exercise choices have far more important priorities, such as the two or three jobs it may take to pay the rent.

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    1. Definitely. Part of the problem — if not the majority of the problem — comes from access to decent food, the backwards subsidies, and other systemic factors. The thing that the FA movement gets right is that we shouldn’t be blaming individuals for systemic problems that they can’t reasonably control. What they get wrong is denying any credibility to research about the problems related to obesity and how damaging it can be to a person’s health to be extremely overweight. I mean, look. I’m a smoker. I don’t think that research telling me I will likely get lung cancer as a result of my bad habit is somehow oppressive or “eliminationist” or whatever. That’s absurd. What would be the solution? Not telling people about the dangers of cigarette smoking? That would be far worse in all areas. Also, there seems to be a disconnect here about what “obesity” even means. When people talk about Fat Acceptance, they often conflate chubby with morbid obesity, which are not in any way comparable. Being a little overweight will not cause the same health problems as being morbidly obese. One can certainly be fat and healthy, but it’s not nearly as likely to be morbidly obese and healthy. There is a difference, and I think far too few people take into account those differences.

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