Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fighting the Obesity Epidemic: Attacking the Symptom, Not the Problem

I recently read the Atlantic’s current cover article, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  The author, David H. Freedman, makes some truly excellent points, arguing that many expensive, unprocessed “health foods” actually contain just as much sugar and fat as processed foods. Freedman discusses the classed nature of obesity in America, and how the working class and poor have significantly higher rates of obesity.   He identifies the fast food industry’s growing practice of swapping out less healthy ingredients for healthier ones as the most promising solution to curbing the obesity epidemic in America. Freedman continues to argue that “healthy food” does not appeal to the working poor, citing the McDonalds McLean Deluxe, the company’s worst product flop of all time.  He also describes the one bodega in East LA selling produce as empty compared to the other junk food laden bodegas. 

Though I agree with many of his points, I was bothered by a seemingly paternalistic message in the article, that poor people don’t want healthy food. I found myself wondering as I read this article, why is it that people know what is good for them but choose to eat something that is bad for them anyways?  We all know we are supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables.  And history has taught us that concluding “x group of people are just lazy and don’t care about their health” is a discriminatory and reductionist argument.  I think it’s time to look at the deeper cause.

The reality is that food is not simply fuel, and skyrocketing obesity rates among the poor are not just about food availability.  Food has an incredible amount of personal and cultural significance.  Food is a comfort, a ritual, a bonding experience or a moment of peaceful solitude.  We cannot discount the emotional, psychological relationship that humans have with food. If you are making minimum wage, struggling to pay for groceries, living expenses, and health care, or worse are unable to find a job at all, you will likely feel huge amounts of stress.  It’s not surprising that when we fell stress we tend to reach for the easily available and inexpensive “comfort foods” that light up the reward centers in our brains, releasing the “feel good” chemicals dopamine and endorphins.  Food is the least expensive and most readily available coping tool for stress, and it takes time and money to reach for healthier alternatives like exercise and hobbies that lead to personal fulfillment.  It’s not about people deciding what is “healthy” to eat.  Everybody knows what they should eat, and beating them over the head with shame and statistics won’t change anything.  The key to ending the obesity epidemic is not more Whole Foods Markets or a better McDonalds.  It’s ending the cycle of poverty and stress through social reform.  The most promising solution to the ending the obesity epidemic is a minimum wage you can live on, healthcare that won’t leave you bankrupt, and upward mobility through to a decent education. 

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