Obesity as social disease

A response posted on Plastic about obesity:

“_especially if you are a short but muscular person_”

Are there really that many of them? I should know, since I prowl bars and street corners and subway trains looking for these guys, but they’re few and far between.

“_The diet and weight loss industry is a 3 Billion dollar a year industry._”

And which of these industrial complexes do you think is larger, wealthier, and more powerful both in Washington and in the nation’s hearts and minds?

*Make money off people gaining weight*: cattle ranchers and corn farmers, fast food and soft drink executives, cardiologists, television programmers, automobile assembly technicians, etc.
*Make money off people losing weight*: dieticians, personal trainers, tofu saleswomen, yoga instructors, bicycle lobbyists, fashionistas, etc.

No contest there.

Sure, this comparison borders on the absurd — but do the food companies make money off people eating unprocessed organic vegetables from farmers markets… or off people eating canned, frozen, pre-cooked, microwaveable Processed Food Product? A more obvious example: the federal agency that administers nutrition programs is the Department of Agriculture (not HHS!), whose primary duty is to promote agriculture. It promotes agriculture by getting us to eat more. Hm.

Big Pharma — do they make money off of healthy people, or sick people? C. Everett Koop claims that 75% of American healthcare expenditures are spent cleaning up lifestyle illnesses. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer — if only people ate better, we could knock a huge hole in Pharma’s budgets.

The infomercial hawkers and their Ab Crunchers — oh, give me a break. Pitting AOL Time Warner, GM, ADM, and Nabisco against… Ronco.

“_However, our lifestyle… gives our society an immense economic advantage_”

And is that necessarily a good thing?

Okay, here’s an example. Our auto-centric transportation system is the costliest in the world — America spends 50-100% more (as a percentage of GDP) on transportation than most of our industrialized peers (about 25% more than Canada and Australia, which have even more vast and empty interiors than the U.S.). One way to look at this is “well, good, spending this money boosts GDP, right, especially in the automotive and construction sectors.” Another way to look at it is that maybe we’re not getting a good value here. Does our transportation system do its job — getting us where we need to go at a reasonable cost? (Cost here is widely defined: personal costs like money, time, and convenience — but also social or environmental costs like safety, health, reliability, sustainability, efficiency, and pollution.) Or does our transportation system fixate on moving A and B to C and D, never mind the costs? And if so, could we find efficiencies in the transportation system — and use what we’ve saved (think macroeconomically here) to invest in other national priorities?

I would argue that America’s auto-centric, though supplemented by airplanes, transportation system is not a good value. Parts of the U.S. and other industrialized nations move goods and people more efficiently using a combination of modes: road, rail, air, water, and foot. Creating a truly multimodal transportation system (through transportation and urban land use policies) wouldn’t just promote good human health, but would also save on many other costs.

(And then, of course, there’s the bigger question: does more money actually make us better off? More money doesn’t make us Americans [since we’re already rich] happier or healthier, it doesn’t necessarily improve life outcomes and expectancies. So why fixate on economic growth?)

Point being: obesity is a disease of affluence, and like all diseases of affluence, it’s a prime example of the economy growing at the expense of health and quality of life. More profits can be made by people overconsuming (and then consuming even more to ameliorate said effects of overconsumption) than by having people consume responsibly in the first place.

I’m not interested in blaming the overweight. I’m equally not interested in blaming the victims of any other social disease (poverty, racism, etc.) — and obesity, to a much larger extent than most are willing to say, is a social disease.

Full disclosure for “fat threads”: I’m about 5-10% below my ideal weight and have no personal interest in “apologizing” for overweight people. I do, however, have a personal interest in improving the lot of tofu saleswomen and bicycle lobbyists.