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The Politics of Obesity

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There is a lot of focus in the mainstream media on the growing epidemic of obesity in western countries. The media pretty universally places the blame on individuals. Overweight adults are guilty of "poor lifestyle choices." While obesity in children is blamed on the failure of the parents to control their kids' unhealthy lifestyle choices. This emphasis on "poor lifestyle choices" has led many pundits to call for a "fat tax" to penalize Americans for buying fast food and junk food. In my view, this flies in the face of all medical and epidemiological research regarding the causes of obesity.

Why Neoliberalism Promotes Individual Solutions

I am always very skeptical whenever I see any major social problem transformed into a personal problem that can only be solved by individuals and their families. Mainly because the ideological notion that only individuals can solve community problems has been part and parcel of the neoliberal economic agenda rolled out by Milton Friedman in the seventies in eighties (first in Chile and ultimately by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher). In fact Thatcher said as much: "There's no such thing as society - only individuals and families."

Moreover a look at the editorial content of the Reader's Digest and other periodicals associated with CIA propaganda efforts suggest they actively promote individualism as an ideology (see The CIA's infiltration of America's mainstream media via their controversial Project Mockingbird is discussed in the 2007 memoir of convicted Watergate "plumber" E. Howard Hunt: American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond.

Individual Solutions Have Never Worked for Obesity

There is really no reason why the obesity epidemic should differ from other epidemics. In fact the political and social factors underlying obesity are a lot more obvious than with most infectious diseases. For nearly five decades, doctors and weight loss franchises (such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig) have tried every individual approach imaginable for weight loss - with spectacularly poor results. With a few well-publicized exceptions, the vast majority of dieters lose some weight and then overcompensate by regaining even more weight than they have lost. I would even hazard that the individual, case-by-case approach to obesity will remain pretty hopeless until the underlying social and political causes are addressed.

Political and Social Causes of Obesity

In my view, the political and social causes of obesity fall into two broad categories: ideological (corporate messaging that triggers unhealthy eating) and economic. I include under economic America 's for-profit, insurance-dominated health care system, which I view as the single reason why Americans are the most overweight nationality in the world (it's the single major factor that differentiates us from the rest of the industrialized world).

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How Corporate Messaging Fosters Excessive Weight Gain

What is often overlooked in analyzing obesity is that 250,000 years of evolution have biologically programmed human beings to crave high calorie fatty and sugary foods. Food security was a life and death issue for the vast majority of our hunter-gather ancestors - who often went weeks or months without access to food. Obviously those genetically programmed to scarf as much high calorie food as possible when it was abundant had a much better chance of surviving to pass their genes to the next generation.

The corporate planners, advertisers, and psychologists who advise them are very much aware of the immense profits to be derived by exploiting this inborn tendency to crave high calorie foods. Which is the major reason we are all constantly bombarded by billboards, TV, radio, and print ads designed to create an irresistible desire for French fries, Big Macs, deep fried KFC chicken, and chocolate.

McBaby by Adbusters

Grease by Adbusters

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Big Mac Attack by Adbusters

Economic Causes of Obesity

Epidemiologists have known for decades that rates of obesity are much higher in low income and minority groups. However it's only in the past few years that medical science has understood the mechanisms behind this finding. In my own practice I've identified four specific reasons for excessive weight gain in low income patients:  1) insulin resistance, also known as metabolic or dysmetabolic syndrome - which, according to epidemiologists, is linked to extreme income equality, 2) a system of government food subsidies that penalizes low-income Americans for making healthy food choices, 3) the refusal of major supermarket chains to operate in low income inner cities, and 4) a for-profit, insurance-based health care system that deprives the vast majority of low income Americans access to regular preventive care and nutritional guidance.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)

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