America’s affinity for genetically modified crops, monocultures, and processed junk foods has many causes. It’s convenient. It’s heavily advertised to children of all ages. And it’s a cheap way to produce a lot of calories (it’s heavily subsidized). Regardless of the cause, the results are starting to take a “heavy” toll.
A recent USA Today cover story states that obesity is projected to affect 42% of Americans by 2030 (1). But statistics vary: according to the HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation, approximately 36% of Americans already fall into this category; even more troubling is the fact that about 17% of American children are also considered obese (2). This epidemic presents an enormous burden on our medical system, as excessive weight increases the risk of multiple diseases: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Many experts believe that this may be the first generation of children that will be less healthful and live shorter lives than their parents, which has the ability to cripple the American workforce of the future. This scenario is actually already occurring in businesses across America; many companies are hurt by the rising insurance costs, a large percentage of which stems from obesity-related health concerns (3).
But how can we begin to address this complex issue? According to HBO’s Weight of the Nation, the single most important thing we can do to address weight issues is to eliminate juice, soda, and other sweetened beverages from our diet. We also need to increase our level of physical activity, manage what we eat, and work with supportive friends, family, and coworkers to create healthy living spaces. These are, of course, great recommendations for anyone, obese or not. But it reflects the documentary’s focus on personal responsibility while ignoring many of the polities that have allowed obesity to become an epidemic.
According to Grist, the HBO documentary falls short with public policy solutions, saying that the focus on obesity itself distracts from the changes that are needed with the broader food system. The author notes, “[The Weight of the Nation documentary] spends far too little time on the powerful lobbying by the food, advertising, and media industries that undermine policymaking”(4). Without addressing the massive government subsidies that support farming of GMO corn, soy, and wheat (the basis of most of the processed food in this country), we are essentially blaming the victim for making the mistake of becoming obese. Likewise, Marion Nestle, author of multiple food policy books and the blog Food Politics, says, “I wish [the HBO documentary] had focused more on how we—as a society—could mobilize public distress about the poor quality of food in schools and the relentless and misleading marketing of sodas and junk foods” (5).
Interestingly enough, a few days after the obesity projections were posted on USA Today, the newspaper reported on a two new drugs that could address obesity in adults; at the time of this posting, both of these drugs are pending approval (6). While the pharmaceutical industry may assist people with weight loss, this too can be seen as a distraction from the problems of our food system: unhealthy options are sold to us as food, and when these products make us unwell, we can rely on petrochemical-derived drugs created by corporations with a vested interest in keeping us sick.
There needs to be a balance between personal, governmental, and corporate responsibility. Most importantly, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our families, and our communities: we need to become smarter, healthier consumers. We need to learn about why vegetables are important in our diet; we need to learn about the subsidies that support the planting of mostly genetically modified soybeans (94% of US fields are GM) (7); we need to learn about high concentration of toxic bacteria in animal products; we need to learn that fad diets are not going to keep us healthy. But our government needs to make policies that not only address current issues (such as obesity, diabetes, and food contamination), but make proactive steps to ensure the health of the nation: eliminate corn, soy, wheat subsidies that are processed into cheap, unhealthy food and are fed to animals to create unhealthy meat; create incentives for farmers, schools, and industry to find healthy food solutions for their communities; prevent long-term environmental damage (soil degradation, ocean dead zones, topsoil loss) from confined animal feeding operations and pesticide-dependent crops; create regulations that address the persistent advertising of junk food to children. And corporations have work to do as well: focus on sourcing ethical, wholesome products to feed consumers; ensure the safety of their foods throughout the supply chain; eliminate bogus quick-fix solutions to health that comes in boxes or pills; use the current health crises as a teachable moment to ensure that consumers become knowledgeable and conscious about their food and health options.
The fact that obesity has become an ‘epidemic’ is a warning to us all that our food system is failing most people in our country. Unfortunately it is a larger burden for the poorest people in our nation, but none of us are insulated from the forces that maintain the broken food system, and it is the responsibility of all of us to begin the repairs.
(1) USA Today: Obesity could affect 42% of Americans by 2030
(2) Weight of the Nation, The Basics-What is Obesity?
(3) ABC News: Rising Obesity Rates Increase Nation’s Health Care Tab
(5) Food Politics: Pondering the Weight of the Nation
(6) USA Today: FDA advisers recommend approving Arena Weight loss drug
(7) Food Politics: GM crops in crisis
Andrea Devon Bertoli is a vegetarian chef, health & cooking instructor for Manis Kitchenworks, surfer, yogi, and blogger based on the gathering isle of Oahu. Follow her growing, baking, and eating adventures at BakeryManis.com.
Photo courtesy Willie Lunchmeat on Flickr Creative Commons
Andrea Devon Bertoli is a vegan chef, teacher, blogger, and yogi based on the gathering isle of Oahu. Follow her foodie adventures at Vibrant Wellness Journal and Manis Kitchenworks.