Why won’t I take the obesity epidemic and onslaught of bad, manufactured food seriously? Do I really not care about children weighing 200 pounds, about the rocketing incidence of diabetes, the intense marketing of food that is calorically dense and nutritionally lacking?
This is the kind of shallow response I tend to get when I offer critical and sarcastic responses to the people peddling Obesity Panic. The move is to ignore that I am critiquing the mode, rhetoric and hidden agendas of the proponents of the arguments and (incorrectly) claim that I (or others making comparable arguments – I’m not alone in this) are saying that the current state of affairs is just dandy.
I do take the expansion of the societal waistline very seriously, though I only attempt to change my own seeing as how that’s the only one I should have direct authority over and responsibility for. I’m not terribly interested in policing other people’s guts. My interest in this phenomenon is sociological and political for the most part, though I try to stay aware of different scientific and medical views. Public obsession with control over bodies, and very much over female, poor and non-white bodies, has always been a matter of concern to me, being permanently female, transitionally poor and quite aware of my white privilege. To me, the most pernicious aspect of the interventionism is they way in which it tries to authorize levels of intervention in the lives of socioeconomically weak subjects that would be considered intolerable if applied to themselves.
I’m also highly skeptical of much of the food for sale in this country, whether from a grocery store or an eatery. The fantasy of “choice” in the supermarket which means trying to make a selection from a bewildering array of nearly identical things. I don’t think adding a lot of sugar and salt to food, whether to enhance flavor or extend shelf life, is a good thing, though I’m not ready to declare it some diabolical scheme of the food industry. People like sugar and salt. We just do. My personal complaint about most packaged foods is that their flavor profile has been adjusted to suit the lowest common denominator of taste, and so tastes kind of “meh” to me. That doesn’t keep me from popping open a jar of cheap marinara sauce when I want to make a fast dinner, but I probably will doctor it up with a spoon of this, a dash of that, a splash of something else to take the otherwise bland and too-sweet tomato concoction to a better place.
I’m also not ready to demonize the fast food industry since demonization seems to be highly selective depending on whether or not the critic wants to eat at said location. The upscale “fast casual” fast food joints never come in for the moralistic drubbing that the lower-end traditional fast-food places do. There are a lot of pretty good things on the McDonald’s menu these days, and bad choices are present even at the media darlings Chipotle and Panera Bread.
I take the rise in diabetes seriously since I have friends and family who have developed it and I am myself at risk. But instead of trying to find a villain, it strikes me as much more productive to identify things that aren’t helping and having solid, actionable ways to make changes. It looks like one of the best things a person can do for herself if diabetes is a problem is to identify and replace, reduce or eliminate liquids containing significant caloric sweeteners, whether added or naturally occurring. This means soda, but also fruit juice, sweetened teas and coffees, and specialty water beverages that contain sugar. I’m not going to force anyone to stop drinking beverages with significant amounts of sugar (whatever form that sugar takes), but I want to be damn sure that we don’t have two tiers of sweetened beverages – one that is penalized, taxed and reviled because the stupid poor won’t stop guzzling it, and another that the upper classes can drink without criticism because it has a fancy label on it or makes health claims or costs a lot of money.
Sugar is not a toxin anymore than any other routinely ingested food product is – unless ingested to excess. What is excess? Well, that depends on who is ingesting, under what circumstances, for what purpose. The mere fact that it is used in transforming individual ingredients into dishes – a cupcake, a tomato sauce, an agrodolce, a caramel, a steak rub, etc. – is simply called “cooking” and is a major human accomplishment. What you can’t get away from is that sugar, salt, shelf-stable fats and processed grains are cheap in a way that other food items like meat, fresh produce, fresh dairy, and things that spoil without fridges and freezers, are not. In a recent Bloomberg slideshow, Where Our Money Goes, Rich and Poor, food is a major portion of all households’ budgets, but takes a bigger slice from a poor household than a rich one. Cheap foods, those made possible by the “toxic” substances demonized by food puritans, are going to be the mainstay of the poor household because it will fill stomachs and satisfy appetites. It’s not like rich households aren’t also getting fatter, which points to something other than merely ingesting highly processed foods. Would I like to see sugars reduced in the food products on our shelves? Honestly, I could not care less if they are or aren’t. I think people are stupid to buy full-sugar sodas mostly because they can make Kool Aid so much more cheaply and with slightly less sugar per serving. Then again, I buy Diet Coke by the flat because I don’t like iced tea or iced coffee, but I do like having a cold caffeine beverage in the afternoon.
I do have a problem with the diet and exercise industry that lives to tout bogus claims of thinness or wellness when all they want are return customers. Weight cycling is worse for your health than maintaining a steady state of fat, and that’s what these industries thrive on. I do have a problem with the advertisement and marketing industries, that will do anything to part you from your money – violate your privacy, pander to your children, and misrepresent products. I have a problem with right-wing policies that undermine public health and privatize risk. I have a problem with left-wing policies that also undermine public health and privatize risk. Yeah, both ends of the political spectrum are doing the same thing, one to wring profits out of you, the other to beat personal rectitude into you.
What I won’t do is engage in demonization of ordinary people wrestling with the daily grind of caring for their families in tough economic times because their environment has changed substantially in the last 20 years, and it has structured the very fabric of their lives in such a way that it is very hard not to gain weight. I won’t take away the agency of adults to live their lives as they see fit, even if I think their choices are illogical or downright unappetizing. And I am not going to tell people how to raise their kids, especially as I have none of my own and do not have their experience of the world. Finally, I am so not going to throw more rocks at women who are already under fire for not being perfect, compliant, ever-young, ever-nubile, ever-glamorous, ever-fuckable little dolls.
But I do promise not to candy coat the issues.