How Republicans and Democrats Both Get “Obesity” Wrong

Are you ready? I’m going to get critical of Republicans.

And Democrats.

Because while everyone loves a partisan controversy, on this issue, folks on both sides of the aisle are cowed before food industry drones who have shareholder interests–not public interest–in mind.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (which, if anecdotal evidence is telling, is doing more to provoke anxiety in healthy-weight kids than to help kids who are actually at risk for diet-related disease) wrings hands about “the epidemic of childhood obesity” and wonders how we got here:

Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day.

Portion sizes have also exploded – they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. {…} in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.

The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

I need to point out a few things about the above excerpt from the Let’s Move! website:

1. It points out that consumers eat and drink more (including more sugar): consumers are the agents.

2. It mentions “sugar-sweetened beverages”–but not soda by name–that’s not an accident: the soda lobby would never allow that! And how would kids be getting those sugar-sweetened beverages? Couldn’t be because there’s SODA at SCHOOL, could it?

3. It says “portion sizes have exploded” as if they did it all on their own!

4. It notes that kids are “trending” toward 3 daily snacks but fails to point out WHY that is–namely, the fact that cheap, unhealthy snacks are EVERYwhere–like in school vending machines.

5. It talks about Americans eating “pounds” of sugar as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar–it doesn’t point out that there’s sugar (or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup) in spaghetti sauce, hamburger buns, ketchup, and pickles, not to mention all the more obvious places.

These may sound like the observations of a curmudgeonly former English teacher (which they are, because I am.) But in fact, these omissions and ‘weasel’ words are very telling. Purposeful vagueness all over the Let’s Move language. Why?

Because the food industry won’t let anyone in or near government point out what’s really going on.

More fundamental than these vaguely weasel-y communications is the whole framing of the discussion in terms of OBESITY as the problem.

As Michele Simon points out in her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back:

“If you think about it, obesity is only one symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: a profit-driven, corporate-controlled food supply. We should devote our energies to fixing the root problem (the food system) rather than squander our precious resources on symptoms like obesity.”

(Plus, as Simon points out, people can have diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes WITHOUT being obese, and NO ONE is helped by reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that go along with calling people “obese.”)

One of the things that could be done is to persuade food companies NOT to advertise unhealthy foods to kids.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children are naturally drawn to sweets and salty snacks, especially if cool characters are on the packages or promoting them on TV. As parents, all our “eat your veggies!” messages can get drowned out by the sheer attractiveness of junk.

Which is why I’m pretty annoyed at the GOP for blocking proposed guidelines that would’ve boiled down to this:

“By the year 2016, all food products most heavily marketed directly to children and adolescents ages 2-17 should meet two basic nutrition principles — they should contain foods that make a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans) and they should limit nutrients with a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.” (source)

Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, does it?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) seems to have been especially outspoken at the hearing, saying that these guidelines amounted to “government” supplanting the role of parents in monitoring children’s eating. The Congresswoman got lyrical, remembering her mother forcing her to eat liver once a week because it was good for her. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) “helpfully” noted: “the problem is in our world today, we just don’t take the time to do what we need to do.”

Or maybe the “problem” is that Rep. Mack gets much of her campaign finance from the TV industry as well as a good bit from farm/food processors. (Rep. Barton gets plenty from TV as well as the health industry.)

Not advertising junk food to kids is one small thing, but it could go a long way. And taking a stand shows respect for children–and their parents–who could do with a few less confusing advertisements in their lives.

[Processed food (and that's almost everything that you didn't cook yourself from scratch these days) has been as powerfully implicated as a destroyer of health as have cigarettes. The tobacco lobby worked just as hard to keep government from pointing the finger toward the real culprit there, too.]

Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone in (or near) government to say something pointed, like “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat in a package” or “drink soda once a week at most” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Better yet, let’s not listen to anything those folks have to say about food. They’re not really working for us, after all.

(And–did you know?–advertising AT ALL to children under 12 is illegal in most of Europe.)

{repost from the archives}

About Rachel Marie Stone
  • dad

    That’s right. We’re not gonna let the government raise our kids like those soft, pinko Europeans do. We know that only good, God-fearin’ multinational corporations should do that!

    And of course over here we’re not afraid of corporations, ’cause we know they’re people!

  • Rachel

    I totally agree that the emphasis on obesity is misplaced. It would be much better for everyone to talk about food choices.

    I do however still think it is the parent’s responsibility to make healthy food choices. I know you will say that the general public is uneducated about truly healthy food. Could money be spent in educating parents not legislating advertising?

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    “as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar” – Wait a sec … You mean the rest of you don’t?

    Advertisers tell us all sorts of lies (and I just wrote on that yesterday, getting posted a week from today I think), but it’s especially egregious when it is about something basic like food and is aimed at little kids. Makes me want to say yuck!

    Tim

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      P.S. I just realized I have a connection with the congresswoman. I’ve driven on the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway a few times. Yay, I’m a celebrity.


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