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  • Call Off the War on Obesity

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

    It serves as the basis for professional health conferences or exploitative “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. Thinness does not mean 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.

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    14 Comments

    1. Alexander J. Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN said on December 1st, 2011

      Andy, love the big 3 that you pointed out: 1. industry lobbying, 2. Big Food predatory marketing, and 3. misguided agricultural subsidies.

      These are elephants in the room when it comes to the so called “War on Obesity”.

      I also agree that reframing is essential if you’re going to get large numbers of individuals on board for change.

      When you are “against” something, it puts factions against one another. Separate the noise and you come back to basic principles of simply eating “real food”.

    2. Jenny said on December 1st, 2011

      “The bridging of the many currently-fragmented nutritional tribes” <—-quote of the year.

    3. Nancy said on December 4th, 2011

      One of the big dangers of the “war on obesity” is that is also a “war on the obese”. I may be visibly obese but invisibly healthy, but to many who look at me, all they see is that I must be a glutton who is burden to the health care system. They feel free to give me unwanted advice, insult me, and bully me, thinking that it’s acceptable to target the fat woman.

    4. BrettFutureRD said on December 5th, 2011

      “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.”

      I think it is also worth pointing out that it is possible to be at a “healthy weight” that falls in the dubious “overweight” and “Obese” categories as long as you are pointing out that thin people aren’t automatically the healthiest.

    5. Ryan Andrews said on December 5th, 2011

      I really enjoyed this. Thanks for posting.

    6. kate said on December 6th, 2011

      But where do we go to join with the other like-minded folks? I would join this movement now if we could all ban together. I try to vote with my dollars, but we need more.

      Also, how do you take on the food/agriculture industry without getting sued???

    7. ScoopingOprah said on December 7th, 2011

      I’m doing my bit to help the obese win the “war”, which is really a war on self-defeating hunger habits. My mission is to show people that permanent (maintenance-free) weight loss is not nearly as difficult as they think. But first, they have to stop doing the same thing over and over (daily dieting), hoping it will produce a different result the newest time around.

    8. Kathryn said on December 8th, 2011

      Andy, love the intentions you list. Those are great goals to work toward-”…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.”

      Keep up the great work!

    9. Stephen said on December 30th, 2011

      There is clear science that support health and longevity risks for BMIs above 25 which is considered over weight. There is also fairly good evidence of optimal BMIs in the range of 20-21. Because of this, “calling off the War on Obesity” seems short sighted. The failure of promoters to target these goals while at the same time eating a healthy diet is the problem which is easily fixed and more appropriate than “calling off” the war on this insidious trend.

    10. Andy Bellatti said on December 30th, 2011

      Stephen,

      The problem is that the “war on obesity”:

      * Tends to be a war on obese individuals
      * Considers obesity to be the cause of problems (rather than a symptom!). It’s a short-sighted effort because it doesn’t get to root problems
      * Is too easily appropriated by Big Food
      * It frames the issue of health solely as “weight”, when it is all too easy to eat a horrible diet and still be at a “healthy BMI”

      I am not sure what you mean by promoters not targeting goals?

    11. Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian said on April 22nd, 2012

      I think you forgot to mention “personal responsibility” too. It is too easy to blame just gov’t and food manufacturers (even though a big part of it). We need to look at parents (adults) choices for themselves and their children.

    12. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2012

      Nancy

      I didn’t forget to mention personal responsibility. You must have skipped over this sentence: “I believe our food choices are a combination of environmental factors and personal choice, with environmental factors weighing more heavily)”.

      Choices can only be as good as our environment allows them to be.

      Why are we letting terrible nutrition policy slide by without recognizing the problems it inherently brings up? Are you therefore arguing that Americans have become “less responsible” over the past thirty years?

    13. Julie Duffy dillon said on April 26th, 2012

      Great article Andy! Could not agree more!

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