Thursday, March 24, 2011

The problem with anti-obesity campaigns

They miss the point.

Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein of The American Prospect recently wrote a short post explaining that, if fatness were shortness and shortness were unhealthy, she would be gracious enough not to be offended when it was insinuated that her deficient height is bad for her health, and that we need to eliminate childhood shortness.  Unfortunately, the comparison is a moot point and only serves to further perpetuate completely backwards information.

The hysteria over the "obesity epidemic" is misdirected.  The problem isn't that too many people are too fat; it's that too many people eat shit for food, never move their bodies, and become unhealthy and acquire chronic illnesses as a result.  The solution can't be to make sure everyone loses weight, because that would imply that thinness = healthiness, which is clearly not true, as evidenced by, you know, unhealthy thin people.

Obviously, there are certain health conditions that can occur as a result of being extremely over- or underweight.  The point, however, is that in the vast majority of cases, an inactive lifestyle combined with a poor diet will cause health problems -- whether or not such an unhealthy lifestyle causes one to gain weight.  And while some people are naturally thinner than others, others are naturally fatter.  And fat isn't being used as a pejorative here, but simply a neutral descriptor.  People come in all shapes and sizes-- really!  Truly!

Unfortunately, the federal subsidy system is completely fucked, so the most affordable foods are the ones that are the worst for human health (YAY CORN!), so poor people often bear the brunt of this problem (causing ignorant assholes to uncritically wonder how someone can be both fat and poor at the same time; must not be so poor after all, huh??).  When packaged, preservative-laden, sodium- and fat-heavy foods with little actual nutrients other than calories and perhaps protein are less expensive than the healthy stuff, it only makes economical sense for a struggling family to buy the packed crap.  And moralizing this issue doesn't help anyone.

What we can do to improve public health is stop pretending that fat = bad health, and thin = good health.  Then we can ensure that public schools have actual nutritious food served for lunch and do not provide options like greasy Pizza Hut personal pan pizzas and a brownie stand every day, and that we change federal agricultural subsidies to make real, high-quality foods affordable for everyone.  And speaking of school lunches, no, ketchup is not a vegetable.  Usually, ketchup is little more than tangy tomato-flavored high fructose corn syrup.  But anyway, our food and nutrition problems in the US are caused by systemic issues, which means that the solution lies in the system, not in shaming fat kids.  And it's weird, because Beyerstein acknowledges this, sort of:
But just because I'm like this under optimal conditions doesn't negate the fact that an unhealthy environment can stunt other people's growth. It's too bad that there's a stigma to being short, but that's no reason not to act to prevent shortness when shortness is a symptom of an unhealthy environment.
Emphasis mine.  So, yes.  We've established that the environment is unhealthy, and obesity can often be a symptom of that unhealthy environment.  But focusing on a symptom as a way to treat the whole problem just... doesn't exactly work.  It's not the fact that I'm currently sneezing that is making me sick; it's the cold virus I caught.  So focusing on stopping sneezing as a way to cure my cold will fail at its mission.  And not all people sneeze when they catch a cold virus.  Also, some people sneeze without even being sick!

Extended metaphors are fun.

But seriously, though.

Since I'm an annoyed person by nature, I find the "other side" to have some irritating rhetoric and tactics, as well.  The oft-cited "diets don't work" trope particularly bothers me.  A "diet" is a way of eating.  Each and every one of us is on a diet.  What specifically does not work aren't diets, but products and unrealistic eating plans that promise to, first and foremost, help you lose weight.  Lifestyle changes, on the other hand, do work if they are in fact lifestyle changes, and not fad diets or unnaturally strenuous exercise regimens.  Some people even claim that even the so-called lifestyle change doesn't work either, apparently meaning that if a person eats like garbage and sits around all day, nothing will ever, ever change that and the person should be content with their lifestyle exactly as is.

Of course, I'm being hyperbolic.  That's not really what they're coming right out and saying, but it is what many people hear when the sentiment is communicated in such a non-descriptive manner, leaving out definitions of words and real life and stuff.  It's hard for me to imagine that I will go back to eating processed junk and drinking a 12-pack of shitty beer every day because it's some sort of natural tendency for me, ya know?  And sure, when I was living like that, I was nearly 30lbs heavier than I am now, but I really doubt strongly that I will fall back into such long-term patters of behavior after spending the last few years learning about nutrition, cooking more frequently, and taking up activities like bike-riding and yoga, all of which I find highly enjoyable.  Really, people won't stick with something they don't like.  And if broccoli and yoga don't make a person happy, they're likely to not keep it up for very long.  In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, a person needs to figure out what they enjoy and go from there.  It's not a one-size-fits-all thing.  If people keep in mind that humans, for prime health, should be active and eat whole, natural foods, there are plenty of ways to achieve those ideals that don't involve a cookie-cutter diet plan and gym membership.

Of course, diets also don't work because we've trained Americans to crave things like McDonald's and gallons of soda and recliner chairs while watching cable television, so that only adds to the problems people have in sticking to a "lifestyle change."

Ultimately, the anti-obesity campaigns not only miss the point, but focusing on obesity (and general "fatness") is dangerous.  Eating disorders, yo-yo dieting, shaming kids who have little control over what they are fed, more money being thrown at the massive dieting and weight-loss industries who operate an infuriating racket, and misdiagnoses from doctors who mean well but can't look past body fat when determining a patient's ailment... the list goes on.  It's not about fatness, it's about health.  So let's actually make it about health, not about fat.  Because the two aren't mutually exclusive.