Tackling The Politics of Obesity


I don't know quite what to call it. "Food addiction" is a little off, because we are compelled to eat several times a day and the obsessive component of most addictions is often absent. Dr. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner, borrows from the language of behavioral science. We aren't addicted, he says. We're conditioned. We respond to the most salient stimuli.

And food industry, from the growers of corn to the chemists who invented molecular gastronomy, to the food stylists who know how to enhance the physical attractiveness of a hamburger, is the one doing the conditioning. Kessler accuses the food industry of figuring out how to make bad, cheap food addictive.

I was thinking about Kessler's book, which is currently the talk of the weight-loss crowd, on the morning that Centers for Disease Control hosts its first ever Weight of the Nation Conference on obesity. I'll be blogging from that conference over of the next few days as I gather final string for a magazine article about the politics of weight and obesity.

Many obesity researchers I've spoken with are afraid of confrontation, even though the physical and social science evidence is pretty compelling: we aren't what we eat; we are what the food companies want us to be.

Kessler isn't speaking--I think he's in Aspen, speaking to intellectuals gathered there for another food conference--and I'll be interested to see if his ideas are well represented. Kessler represents the wing of the anti-obesity movement that favors confrontation and believes that only if the public gets angry about this manipulation of their diet can they--we--possibly begin to combat the obesity plague. Many obesity researchers I've spoken with over the past several months are afraid of confrontation, even though the physical and social science evidence is pretty compelling: we aren't what we eat; we are what the food companies want us to be.

I'm still not sure that, on balance, one can demonize the food industry for lowering their prices, making the food supply safer than it ever was, and feeding more people. Our policy incentives are misaligned; we spend billions on subsidies for the cheap raw foodstuffs that line the aisles of our drug stores. By one estimate, even if you could wave a magic wand and change the diet preferences of Americans overnight, you'd need to roughly double the production of fruits and vegetables to keep up with demand.

Companies do respond to public pressure. Even though McDonald's denied that Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me movie led to the removal of that category from the store's menus, a former company official admitted to me that the movie did exactly that. A few years ago, the Kraft corporation admirably reviewed all of its advertising aimed and children and seems to be leading the industry out of its profit-based blindness when it comes to the moral effects of marketing. The restaurant industry has relaxed its opposition to menu labeling, although this move is mostly strategic and probably won't lead to better health outcomes.

To read Marc Ambinder's full coverage of the Weight of the Nation obesity conference, click here.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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