It always happens around this time of year: the gyms are jammed, magazines tout celebrity fitness secrets, and the weight loss programs kick into high gear. As the nation segues into collective guilt over the decadence of the holidays, it's hard to escape the Must Lose Now cultural messages that cause weight loss to be one of the most popular New Year's resolutions, right up there with spending more time with the family (which is another sad commentary).
I have been working in the field of nutrition advocacy since 1996. Suddenly in 2002, just after the release of "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity," my work became all about obesity. While I was grateful for the company, having new public health colleagues join me in the "fight against obesity" was, and is, problematic.
But it's good for our health to lose weight, right? Maybe. Last year, the federal government never did quite explain a major discrepancy in published research on obesity-related deaths among its own scientists. Seems that earlier estimates of 400,000 annual deaths attributed to obesity were a tad overstated. While the more accurate figure is closer to 100,000, you will still see the original exaggerated number getting tossed around by lazy journalists.
Still, the government says all the ballyhoo over obesity is well deserved when we consider the health-related consequences of carrying around too much heft. Perhaps, but that still doesn't mean as a policy matter, it's something we should be paying so much attention to when it's really beside the point.
America's obsession with weight loss-whether evidenced by magazine covers or the latest federal educational program-only fuels the "personal responsibility" mantra of the food industry. Major food companies and their lobbying front groups are currently engaged in a major public relations campaign designed to stave off any government regulation of their over-zealous marketing practices. Foremost in corporate spin control is how personal responsibility is the true cause of (and solution to) America's obesity epidemic.
It's not industry's fault it spends $34 billion a year marketing the very foods most people need to eat less of; companies are just providing Americans with "choice" and "good value", they say. Why, it's up to individuals to figure out how to incorporate healthful foods into their lives (while ignoring all the marketing of course); that's not the government's business. It's easy to see how industry can get away with this position when everywhere you look are messages telling us to diet and exercise our way to a slim and trim figure, even from government itself.
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What's wrong with the focus on individual behavior? Isn't it true that Americans are just a bunch of coach potatoes that need to "get real" as Dr. Phil says? Of course, on some level we are all ultimately responsible for our actions. But why is it so hard for most people to find inexpensive, healthful food? Why is the default what some have called a "toxic food environment?"
Personal responsibility isn't the cure-all for healthy living Big Food would like it to be. The real question is: to what extent does society bear responsibility for making it easier for people to make healthy choices? Nutrition policy should be about reshaping the current corporate-driven environment that places profit above people, toward a more health-promoting and sustaining model.
Obesity shifts the focus away from policy and places it back onto the individual. What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word obesity? A fat person, right? And what images go along with that? If you have the biases of most Americans, that the person is lazy (among other negative traits) and is responsible for their own fat fate. Nutrition advocates couldn't have invented a more self-defeating "framing" than obesity.
Despite the strategic obstacles, when I try raising the problem of the obesity focus with my colleagues, I don't get very far. "We are stuck with it," one said. Another told me how "nutrition" hardly got any media attention, but now that the focus is "obesity," it's finally on the map. Maybe, but for how long and with what consequences?
We all know people who can eat anything (or don't exercise) and not gain an ounce, but this doesn't mean they are healthy. Plenty of others (myself included) eat a perfectly healthy diet, get enough exercise, and yet for whatever reason, cannot attain "optimal" weight. And most of these folks are quite healthy by any other measure. So instead of focusing on weight, why not concentrate on what everyone says we are really worried about anyway? In the long run it's our health and not our weight that matters most and that emphasis will bring about more significant and enduring policy change.
So in 2006, pay no attention to all the lose-weight messages. Instead of joining Weight Watcher's this year, let's resolve to create a society that supports making healthy choices. And maybe spend some more time with the family too.