A Spoonful of Sugar

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.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Culture, Economics, Food, Health, Obesity, Politics
9 comments on “A Spoonful of Sugar
  1. quixote says:

    Blaming people for their fat, especially powerless people, has the same benefit as blaming the laziness of the jobless for their lack of work. It diverts attention away from structural problems. Which isn’t to say that people don’t overeat and are never lazy. But it’s like insisting you boil your own personal water supply in a typhoid epidemic. You might improve your chances, but it’ll never deal with the epidemic if there are open sewers around.

    All of which is a long intro to fascinating research that doesn’t get discussed anywhere near enough in the obesity articles. Klimentidis et al 2010, and a popular discussion of that research here: h ttp://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/david-berreby-obesity-era/ (Not sure how many links your blog allows. Also, you have to go past about the first quarter of the article to get to where he talks about the research.)

    “[O]ver the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas.”

    That tells you there’s some significant environmental factor involved, and that ads, availability, and all the rest are contributing, not primary factors. Especially the data on lab animals. Their diets are controlled to the last calorie and haven’t changed.


    • anglachelg says:

      I moderate all comments, including spam, so if you have important links put them in.

      Interesting article, thanks for the link. It is making me think and will definitely factor into at least one post. Obesity is, as we like to say in the social sciences, “overdetermined,” meaning that there are too many contributing causes to say the cause is just X or just Y, but it may be possible to determine a set of contributing elements at certain inflection points. A concern I have when reading about environmental factors is the effacement of human agency from the equation. If individuals do not have control over the obesity phenomenon, they perhaps can be held blameless, but they also risk losing authority over decisions on how to deal with the facticity of their fat. There is a lot of territory in between the extremes of “fat pigs have no willpower” and “the corporations are poisoning and addicting us.”

      All I can say is that effective change to the fact of growing obesity can only be done through respectful, rational, realistic and personal interactions with individuals, and must have as a foundation recognition and acceptance that the individual may not want to change. That, I believe, is the real sticking point – the idea that there is no social, medical or ethical justification for coercing a fat person to reduce their body mass.



  2. […] A Spoonful of Sugar Fat Land Living […]


  3. quixote says:

    I I agree 100% that it’s counterproductive to tell people how to live their lives and, what’s more, it’s immoral and unethical. Nobody wants that done to them, so how can it be okay done to others?

    I also agree that there’s a lot you can do to help yourself as an individual. As in the typhoid analogy, boiling your own water definitely helps you. But I also think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that individual measures don’t deal with the root causes.

    The interesting thing are the implications. If you want to respect both individual agency and a humane society where we don’t let each other die in the street, the only viable health policy is national health insurance. Any other system will inevitably try to cherrypick, people being what they are, and it will eventually fail. (Like ours is in the process of doing.)

    Another implication is that environmental components require social action. Even if we haven’t pinned everything down yet, it’s pretty clear that endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic pesticides, etc., etc. are somewhere near the center of the problem. And changing that ultimately means changing our entire system of agriculture, industry, and food distribution.

    At which point I find myself thinking, “No wonder they keep hoping some individual food choices will fix everything.”


    • anglachelg says:

      “If you want to respect both individual agency and a humane society where we don’t let each other die in the street, the only viable health policy is national health insurance.”

      Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Yes, having consistent health insurance that will support “wellness” (I hate the term because it has been rendered so vacuous, but it *is* correct) and give people long term access to health workers who can help them stay well over time is much better than shaming people for eating Snickers and telling them to “figure it out” when it comes to managing their sometimes conflicting health needs.

      Yes again to environmental problems and food system problems and really big-ass, wide-spread social engineering types of problems, like how workers are having their lives eviscerated to preserve profit gains for the 1%. There’s actually some good stuff in the most recent National Geographic on figuring out how to use the tools of the Green Revolution in more agriculturally effective, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible ways, for example.



  4. Michelle says:

    You articulated this so well, and I feel pretty much the same way – I don’t like the fact that a lot of the food in the grocery store are just boxes of the same four ingredients flavoured and marketed in different ways, but I also don’t think it’s inherently poisonous or toxic, and I don’t blame people who like to eat it, or need to rely on that food for some reason. It has its place. I would like things to change on a systemic level, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable for individual people to make different, more thoughtful choices about what they eat if they have the resources to do so. But so much of the rhetoric around this issue is so disordered, classist, neoliberal, blaming, and alarmist that those points get lost in its wake.


    • anglachelg says:

      Hi Michelle,

      I meant to reply sooner, but life got busy. Thank you for paying a visit to Fat Land Living. Your blog has been a source of education and inspiration to me. 🙂

      It is difficult to chart a path of common-sense amidst the storms of food culture. A food can be “meh” without thereby being “toxic.” Eating choices can be improved without performing wholesale changes to your life. Health is not an all-or-nothing proposition (your latest post, When health is not on your side. is just brilliant in this regard, btw) and it is better to experiment with a few things that are within your reach than to avoid any action because there are things you can’t do. I watched my mother (and currently see my father and my siblings) get trapped into various cul-de-sacs of these extreme views. Malnutrition was a major factor in her death because simply eating enough was so against her permanent diet mentality.

      Anyway, I don’t know if yelling at the food culture hurricane has any effect, but I’ll give it a try.



      • Michelle says:

        Wow, I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. That experience mirrors some of what I saw when working in cancer care – a lot of the patients suddenly, for the first time in their lives, needed to be eating a lot more calorie-dense food that was highly palatable, and some of them just couldn’t reconcile that with the low calorie, low fat messages they’d been hearing their entire lives, and it was really hard for some of them to make the switch to eating the food that would help them survive treatment. This is an issue that is pretty much NEVER talked about when public health measures to induce people to eat less are introduced, and it really upsets me.


      • anglachelg says:

        Hi Michelle,

        Thanks for your thoughts about Mom. It was shocking to watch what happened to her at the end of her life. She wasted away after menopause (and was happy to finally be “thin”) and then didn’t have enough physical reserves to survive major surgery. Her body just shut down. I’ve had major surgery, too, and know that repairing the body after that kind of trauma takes enormous amounts of energy reserves. I can imagine (and hope I never experience) how draining cancer treatment must be. It feels like the answer to every possible health concern these days is some variation of “just lose weight” plus “quit eating processed food!” accompanied by not-so-subtle comments that if you fail to do this, you *deserve* to be sick. Grrrr……..



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