“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 lobbying, Big 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.