Another week, another “obesity is the enemy and it’s going to kill us all!” message. Earlier this week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the statistic that by 2030, adult obesity rates could be as high as 60 percent in 13 U.S. states. The grim prediction went viral within what seemed like minutes.
In many people’s eyes, this could serve as a public health “wake-up call.” I don’t agree; if anything, in large part due to our society’s obsession with obesity (whether with endless commitments and promises to “end it” or body-shaming “humor”), many of us have become desensitized to such catastrophic information. Hasn’t every American by now seen the famous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention color-coded obesity maps? Haven’t we all been exposed to endless TV specials on obesity, complete with stock video footage of overweight people (from the neck down) walking on a crowded sidewalk or stopping at a crosswalk?
As a nutrition professional, I am discouraged and frustrated by the endless banging of the obesity drum (whether by health conferences, extreme weight-loss shows, or fearmongering headlines). Despite the good intentions by many to increase awareness of the fact that Americans are getting sicker, this focus is erroneous and plagued with problems that actually impede the process of the health movement.
When obesity becomes the focal point of a discussion on public health, it opens the door for tired, clichéd, and “blame the victim” arguments (“Americans are lazy,” “Get off the couch and put the potato chips away!” or “Is it really that hard to eat more fruits and vegetables?”). Very little thought is given to socio-political and environmental factors that pose a threat to our health (more on those in a bit).
Even worse, the rhetoric surrounding the anti-obesity crusade is so neutral and apolitical that the food industry considers itself part of the dutiful troops, whether it’s with “commitments to physical activity” or reduced-calorie, minimally nutritious processed foods that feature artificial sweeteners and “fat replacers” made from genetically modified corn.