Call Off the War on Obesity

This is a guest blog post by Andy Bellatti, MS, RD. It originally appeared on his blog Small Bites

“The war on obesity” has become a familiar battle cry.

It serves as the basis for professional health conferences or an exploitative a “motivational” extreme-weight-loss shows like The Biggest Loser, and is referenced almost daily. Despite the intent to increase awareness of a public health issue, it is plagued with problems that severely impede progress.

War, by definition, requires the identification of at least one enemy, something the war on obesity has failed to do. The absence of precise targets helps explain why so many discussions on the topic are blandly apolitical.

The rhetoric surrounding this anti-obesity crusade is so neutral, in fact, that the food industry considers itself part of the dutiful troops, whether it’s with “commitments to physical activity” or reduced-calorie, minimally nutritious processed foods that feature artificial sweeteners and “fat replacers” made from genetically modified corn.

This neutrality makes it challenging to define the collective “we”, giving Big Food ample room to foster the insidious illusion that it — not just its products, but its practices and tactics — does not contribute to the problem at hand.

Obesity is too abstract of an “enemy”. Instead, it needs to be acknowledged as the most visible symptom of various socio-political diseases — including, but not limed to, industry lobbyingBig Food predatory marketing, and misguided agricultural subsidies.

Unfortunately, most discussions on obesity don’t make these connections. We are instead encouraged to applaud ‘solutions’ like 100-calorie packs of cookies and complimentary pedometers at fast food restaurants.

The war on obesity also lacks a clearly defined goal. What, exactly, does victory look like? A population that is of normal weight? While there are certainly some medical and health risks that accompany obesity, it is possible to be at a “healthy weight”while subsisting on minimally nutritious foods.

Health goes beyond weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol values. Thinness does not imply one eats enough fiber, gets a sufficient amount of minerals, or limits added sugars.

Rather than an aimless war against obesity, efforts should instead be used towards a movement “for” something. Such a movement can’t afford to be vague. A movement “for health”, for instance, can too easily be easily appropriated by the food industry (“Baked Cheetos are healthy!”) and quickly nosedive.

We need to make intentions clear and voice support for concrete concepts, such as sustainable agriculture, accessibility to healthful foods for disenfranchised communities, and regulations that don’t make it so easy for Big Food to have almost unilateral control on health messaging.

Of course, the success of such a movement hinges on a crucial point – the bridging of the many currently-fragmented nutritional tribes.

A raw food vegan and a Paleo enthusiast may, on the surface, appear to exist on two ends of the dietary spectrum. At their core, though, both advocate for whole, minimally processed foods, and have a keen sense of how industry lobbying has affected government nutrition recommendations. There is great potential in coalition politics and having ‘opposing’ factions working together on common goals.

The current public health crisis can not possibly be tackled with apolitical platitudes and infiltration by those who are largely to blame. Clearly, the “war on obesity” is in desperate need of reframing and reconceptualization if it hopes to progress and fix some gargantuan wrongs.

Andy Bellatti, MS,RD is a Seattle-based nutritionist, writer, and speaker, and is the creator of the Small Bites blog.

You can follow him on Twitter @andybellatti.

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  • casey

    We will win the war on obesity when we win the war on drugs…I am sooo glad my family found the  We are eating healthy, and we don’t vrave fat and salt anymore.

  • Guest

    If we stop warring against overweight folks, stop humiliating and bullying them who will the bigots be encouraged to hate next? Obesity is such a convenient substitute for race, gender or other physical characteristic. Have a care for the needs of bigots and elitists — the foodie crowd has swelled exponentially since declaring war on fleshy folk and inviting so many professional haters into the fold. Foodies and mercenary bigots — a match made in heaven!!!

    • Guest 2

      Oh, but if we can classify obesity as a disease, we can get it covered by medical insurance!  Entire industries will spring up around the fertile ground seeded with newly legislated government paid for healthcare! You’re not fat, you have a disease!  Here, go to this doctor and this doctor and this clinic… Take these drugs, see these therapists.

      Or, you could eat less, eat better, and exercise more. 

      Before you jump in with “MY THYROID!!! and such, that’s a teeny percentage of the amount of people in the US that are obese.  If it’s really creeping up on one hundred million out of three hundred million, it ain’t yer thyroid (for 99,900,000 of you), it’s your Dorito’s and Mountain Dew.

      • jnwalsh1

        What Guest 2 said…

      • Tori

        Oh, but if we can classify obesity as a disease, we can get it covered by medical insurance!

        I’m not sure how realistic this is. My current medical insurance wants me to pay an additional premium because of my BMI– without knowing my diet, exercise patterns, or any of my other health indicators.

        Here, go to this doctor and this doctor and this clinic… Take these drugs, see these therapists.

        This is already what nearly every health care provider I’ve ever seen has recommended, never mind whether I’m actually being evaluated for a sinus infection, endometriosis, or a broken foot. Yes, of course, the magic answer is to lose weight.

  • Giovanni Haertel

    Wahoo! Go Veganism! Sorry, just excited it didn’t get bashed in a post.

  • Cat

    The most dangerous part about the ‘war on obesity’ is that it is becoming a war on obese people.

  • Molly at

    Rockstar!  Yes!  All the ‘solutions’ focus on getting individuals to change, but none acknowledge the huge huge huge role of the collective situation.  We cannot build unwalkable neighborhoods, zone (via policy and via wage/housing cost discrepancies) people into ghastly commutes, subsidize sugar and oil (but not fruits and vegetables!), fund chemical ag and defund organic ag, and allow food deserts without acknowledging that somewhere along the line OUR policies are causing distorted and unhealthy eating habits.  

    And I love that you take on the ‘war’ analogy too.  We ‘race for the cure’ without ever racing for the cause.  Rather than a ‘war on obesity’, let’s have ‘steps together for health’ or some such.  (clearly I’m not a marketer :)

    • Kate Heuchera

      I’d like to hear more on your thoughts about unwalkable neighborhoods.

      One thing I find interesting is that the affluent in our town choose to buy houses in neighborhoods where their kids will never be able to walk to school, only take the bus.  

  • Bkbillma

    When will our lovely WP7s get some foodycation

  • Kate Heuchera

    Making the war on obesity just about Big Food and fast food only solves part of the problem.  I can go to my local organic food store and get the makings of a calorie laden feast.  I can also buy ready made calorie laden food there.  

    Just as the author states one can be thin, but not eating healthily…one can also be overweight and eat a healthy diet.  Just because one eats whole wheat organic pasta, it doesn’t mean it isn’t potentially toxic in its own way if you are overeating it, or have issues with blood sugar.

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  • Robin

    I can’t stand it when people criticize programs or ethos, in this case the phrase ”the war on obesity”, and don’t offer a viable solution with all their criticisms.  This phrase alone has spurred millions to action to make positive changes in their lives, which impacts all of our society downstream.  This author attempts solutions while making vague, sweeping suggestions that could not possibly be executed by a single individual struggling with weight and health issues at home.  After some feable suggestions, the author states “Of course, the success of such a movement hinges on a crucial point – the bridging of the many currently-fragmented nutritional tribes.”  Of course they’re fragmented!  Each person is a unique individual, with unique physiology, psychology, and the list goes on!  Each unique physiology requires a unique formula for living.  Each person must find their own unique formula, hence their own battle plan, to fight their own “war on obesity”.  It starts with the single individual.  The war is individualized, personal.  Don’t call off the war on obesity.  Escalate it.

  • Cherry Downs

    This is the most sensible article I have ever read about the problem of obesity! Good job Andy Bellatti !