Friday, May 18, 2012

The Culture of Obesity

David Sirota had a piece in Salon yesterday addressing the obviously demanding issue that is the obesity crisis.  The article consists of five recommendations for how to begin practically addressing the problem.  The appeal of them is intuitive enough, though I would put much more emphasis on Sirota’s number two recommendation, restructuring subsidies, than on his number one, taxing junk food.

I believe that consumers do tend to act in a rational manner, so far as their understanding of the facts allows.  It seems to me that a principle cause of obesity is the malnutrition of the poor, helped along by the fact that high fructose corn syrup and general junk food are less expensive per calorie than healthful food.  Taxing junk food without first dramatically altering the grocery market wouldn’t fix the element of the problem that’s caused by poverty.  Making all food more expensive won’t make people any more likely to acquire adequate nutrition from the food that was expensive before the fact.

There is perhaps a breaking point to be had here, in the same sense that there is with any instance of blaming the victim.  It is unfortunately tempting to assume that obesity and similar ill health is purely the result of poor choices, without regard for the possibility that some people’s actual range of choices is constrained.  For my own part, I often find myself thinking that I know exactly what I need to do in order to be healthier; and more than that, I know that I would roundly prefer the healthier dietary and lifestyle options that are theoretically available to me.  And yet I know that I simply cannot make many of those choices, because they are out of my price range.

This is not to say that education (Sirota’s fifth point) isn’t essential to reversing negative trends in food consumption, but by emphasizing ideas that effectively punish people for their constrained choices, we practically absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make other people’s most healthy choice into the choice that is also most rational.

The trouble is that things like extending the boundaries of rational choice are tediously difficult solutions that must rely on collective social action and firm government initiatives.  This goes for a solution grounded in education, and it goes double for ending junk food subsidies.  It’s also the essence of the third item in the Salon article, banning junk food in schools.  Again, though, I would adjust the language to “replacing” junk food.  It’s more accurate, considering that what we’re talking about is junk food that schools had been supplying in the first place, and it’s also just better PR.  The word “ban” might convey the idea that this issue really is about limiting people’s choices, rather than changing the rational calculations that go into making them.

In any event, all of these potentially effective anti-obesity measures can only be gradually and incrementally implemented.  None of them come with associated breaking points.  The last of Sirota’s recommendations, though, is a matter of impelling a breaking point for a relatively small number of people.  It’s also maybe a solution that wouldn’t spring to many people’s minds, being as it is hidden in plain sight.  But concordantly, it’ll be in plain sight so it might generate more rapid results.

The recommendation is “stop glorifying unhealthy eating habits,” and Sirota’s example of such glorification is the photo-ops that appear throughout presidential campaigns of candidates consuming corn dogs and cheesesteaks.  For some reason, this is seen as an essential way of connecting with voters, either because such terrible food is considered uniquely American or because it helps to make the politician seem like what everyone assumes Americans stupidly want their leader to be: a regular guy.  I hope there will never been a better example of this trend than at the last Iowa straw poll when the treat to be photographed consuming was a deep-fried stick of butter.

But the glorification of unhealthy eating habits extends far beyond that.  For instance, I have always been both perplexed and disgusted by the fact that an activity known as competitive eating exists.  And until it ceases to exist, it remains indicative of a culture that has strongly duplicitous attitudes towards healthy living and the causes of obesity.  And competitive eating truly must cease to exist, along with every other impulse to present food consumption as a source of amusement or personal image, as opposed to what it is and should be: a source of nutrition.

All the more complex initiatives to address the obesity crisis must precipitate from a change of culture, which clarifies valuation of healthy lifestyles.  Until that is achieved, efforts to change policy and improve education are doomed to a degree of frustration.  They will not be accepted by a population that is still pulled in two directions.  They will not be backed up by uniform political will.  Every collective change starts at the level of the individual, and yet the individual’s attitudes often have their foundation in media.

That’s why this is a matter of reaching a breaking point.  The most crucial first steps must be taken by those few people who are in a position to say, no, we won’t broadcast the hot dog eating contest this year, or no, we won’t run the picture of Mitt Romney jamming a chicken fried steak into his face on the front page, or no, we won’t make the fat guy the comic foil in this sitcom.  People in charge of decisions like this are disproportionately capable of changing culture, but I fear they often don’t realize it.

I am always hopeful that something will both jog their awareness and prompt them to take the corresponding responsibility seriously.  And I hope it takes something less than their ceasing to profit off of American obesity, because if I’m right that other initiatives won’t reverse the crisis without a cultural change, then that may never happen.

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