Beyond Counting Calories

Taking the Obesity Fight to Environmental Toxins, Stress, and Capitalism

The prevailing obesity discourse has obscured alternative explanations, from environmental toxins to chronic stress, and failed to address the broader influence of capitalism, which has deeply shaped our neighborhoods, habits, and health.

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Obesity Pragmatism

What We Should and Should Not Do About the Overweight

Public health advocates have distorted the nature of obesity, defining it as an “epidemic” and an “involuntary risk,” thus leading us down a blind alley from which we must now retreat. Instead of taxing junk food or mandating calorie counting, effective interventions will embrace the fact that eating habits are, first and foremost, a matter of individual responsibility.

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Debate Abstract

Obesity today is described as an “epidemic,” one of the most significant health threats to Americans (especially the poor), and a rising global concern. In response, public health advocates have launched an all-out assault. They have made school lunches more nutritious, restricted access to junk food, campaigned against slickly marketed and unhealthy food, and boosted access to healthy options through farmer’s markets and grocery stores. 

Behind many of these efforts lies the idea that access to food is somehow to blame for obesity — namely, too much access to unhealthy foods and too little to healthy ones — and that the corporate agro-industrial complex is a major driving force behind this problem.

In “The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” published in Breakthrough Journal No. 3, sociologist Helen Lee shows where this view came from, how the evidence for it is increasingly slim, and how a narrow focus on food availability has distracted our efforts from the kind of interventions that are far more important for public health.

“Turning the overweight into victims of Big Food or agricultural subsidies (rather than, say, unlucky genetics combined with the increasing availability of affordable and delicious snack food) made it much easier to mobilize political support for a big public health campaign,” wrote Daily Beast columnist Megan McArdle. “They may have won the battle, and lost the war.”

In a column discussing the essay in The Week, Marc Ambinder wrote: “Liberal activists should read it. It’s uncomfortable because it suggests that our beliefs do not comport with the science, and our preferred solutions are tied to a conception of the good life, rather than a realistic appraisal of how life is actually lived.” 

Today, Breakthrough Journal publishes two additional responses. 

In “Beyond Counting Calories,” Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, writes that Lee is correct to take on the food desert thesis, but says the flaws of the current debate go even deeper. “The prevailing discourse,” she writes, “has obscured other possible causes for obesity, from environmental toxins to chronic stress, and failed to address the broader influence of market capitalism, which has deeply shaped our neighborhoods, habits, and health.” 

In "Obesity Pragmatism," Julian Morris of Reason magazine laments the misguided efforts of government and health advocates. Instead of taxing junk food or mandating calorie counting, Morris argues, effective anti-obesity interventions will embrace the fact that eating habits are, “first and foremost, a matter of individual responsibility.”

The essay:

The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” by Helen Lee

Responses:

The Ecology of Obesity,” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Beyond Counting Calories,” by Julie Guthman

Obesity Pragmatism,” by Julian Morris

How Public Health Experts Turned Corporations into Public Enemy #1,” by Megan McArdle

Getting Obesity Wrong,” by Marc Ambinder