The Food Police

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It has become common to speak of an “epidemic of obesity.” News sources routinely feature articles on obesity, and some even suggest that the obesity epidemic is one of the greatest public health threats of our times, perhaps rivaling AIDS or avian flu. Obesity is commonly linked to other social problems as well. It has been named as a cost to businesses in terms of worker productivity, a cause for poor pupil performance, a weight-load problem for airlines, and a security threat in terms of military preparedness. Proposed and implemented social solutions have included snack taxes, corporate-sponsored exercise breaks, stronger food labeling laws, and state-mandated student weigh-ins at public schools.

Obesity is a bonanza for social reformers who deploy the rhetoric of fat in support of projects from farm-to-school programs to mixed-use housing and transportation centers; and for puritans who use fatness as an example of the moral decrepitude to which we must just say no. Finally, the obesity epidemic, and its tendency to dignify obsessions that equate thinness and beauty, is hugely profitable, contributing, by some estimates, to a $40 billion-per-year weight-loss industry. Television shows like The Biggest Loser, sponsored by purveyors of diet foods, fitness centers, and pharmaceuticals, contribute to the false idea that diets work, thereby increasing the market for such goods and services. And if the daily spam I receive for Anatrim is any indication, the underground market in pharmaceuticals is cashing in, too.

A rash of popular books on the so-called obesity epidemic take a variety of positions, though virtually all claim to tell the real story about the epidemic and who is gaining by it. For example, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic, while voicing skepticism of the ways in which obesity has been framed, contributes to the frenzy through its tone.

Lately, another group of writers has gotten in on the act. More refined and measured, their books turn on the theme of “what to eat”–which is actually the title of Marion Nestle’s most recent volume. Other books include Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Anna Lappé’s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, and Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating. The sine qua non is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It is like no other because not only does Pollan know his stuff, he also can write his way out of a paper bag, and his book sales show it. Virtually all of these authors extol the virtues of the organic and the local while arguing for a commonsense, ecumenical approach to diet choices. That makes them refreshing in relation to the usual weight-loss books and painfully restrictive messages of latter-day health foodism. Or does it?

Many of these authors share a common rhetorical strategy. They refer to the statistics of rising obesity rates, the surfeit of calories taken in relative to those expended, and the inexorable road toward illness with concomitant rising health care costs. They go on to discuss the ubiquity of fast, junky food in order to make their points about what constitutes “real” food. But whereas most of the popular writers on fat attribute growing obesity to a variety of culprits–watching television, long drive-to-work times, supermarket product placement, working mothers, baggy clothes, marketing to children, poverty, affluence, and modernity, basically everything under the sun–Pollan’s analysis is more pointed. As he puts it, “All these explanations are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to search for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” Pollan then points to the culprit: corn.

He tells a compelling story about how corn has become the foundation of the national diet. He traces this first to the transport of corn from what is now Mexico to points north, where it took hold and outdid wheat in yield and ease of cultivation. But corn’s strength turned to its weakness; it was prone to systematic overproduction in U.S. agriculture, so surpluses ended up to no good. Corn whiskey was the beverage of choice in pre-Prohibition drinking binges. Since the 1970s, national farm policy has buttressed overproduction with subsidies. Pollan reminds us that corn is omnipresent in a fast-food meal: the high fructose corn syrup that sweetens the soda; the feed of the steer that goes into the hamburger; often the oil that fries the potatoes; an ingredient in the bun. Processed food, Pollan argues, makes us walking corn, and the “Alcoholic Republic” has now given way to “the Republic of Fat.”

Pollan’s critique of the cost-cutting measures of the fast-food giants, the nutritional impoverishment of processed food, and an agricultural subsidy system that encourages ecologically problematic monoculture, horrendous animal treatment, and food dumping in the name of “aid” is spot-on. I could think of no clearer path to a more ecologically sound and socially just food system than the removal of those subsidies. Yet, in evoking obesity, Pollan turns our gaze from farm policy to the fat body. Should fat people bear the weight of this argument?

There is much to criticize in the public conversation about obesity. The evidentiary basis of an “epidemic” is weak, as it relies on changes in average body mass index, a contested way to measure obesity. Moreover, the relationship between food intake, exercise, and growing obesity is poorly understood. Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s exhaustive review of research shows that the notion that weight gain results from a surplus of calories has not been borne out; at best, caloric metabolism appears to explain less than half of body size variation. Finally, claims that obesity is a primary cause of disease are filled with logical flaws, chief among them that obesity may be symptomatic of diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Gard and Wright argue that obesity research itself has become so entangled with moral discourses and aesthetic values that the “science of obesity” can no longer speak for itself.

Many authors of the recent popular books on diet seem unaware of how obesity messages work as admonishment. According to Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health, the people most personally affected by discussions of obesity are those who want to lose 10 or 15 pounds, despite the fact that those who are “overweight” by current standards have longer life spans than those who are “thin” or “normal.” In a course I taught, Politics of Obesity, I was not surprised by the number of students who wrote in their journals of their hidden “fatness” or eating disorders. The number of entries that stated how the course itself had produced body anxiety and intensified concern over diet and exercise, however, was shocking, given that much of the material was critical of obesity talk. The philosopher Michel Foucault might have called this the “productive” power of obesity talk–naming a behavior as a problem intensifies anxiety about that behavior. Yet entirely absent from the pages of the recent popular books is any authorial reflection on how obesity talk further stigmatizes those who are fat, or on how this social scolding might work at cross-purposes to health and well-being.

But there is something even more disturbing about these books. Pollan claims that people eat corn because it’s there. They are dupes. Jane Goodall makes a similar leap when she writes, “There is no mechanism that turns off the desire–instinct, really–to eat food when it is available.” Even Marion Nestle’s concern with supermarket aisles suggests that people mechanically react to product placement. This raises an important question: Why are Pollan, Goodall, and Nestle not fat? If junk food is so ubiquitous that it cannot be resisted, how is it that some people remain thin?

It appears that these authors see themselves as morally superior to fat people in the sense that they characterize fat people as being short of subjectivity. Goodall makes the above assertion having just written of “sad,” “overweight,” “overindulged” cats and dogs being “killed by kindness,” seeming to equate fat people with pets. In the “documentary” Super Size Me, virtually all shots of fat people are headless. Some might argue that having no personal identifiers protects fat people in the camera’s eye, but headlessness also invokes mindlessness. Moreover, protection assumes that fat people are ashamed of their bodies and their eating habits. This presumption is precisely the problem that Kathleen LeBesco captures in Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, including her critique of the fat acceptance movement itself. At best, fat people are seen as victims of food, genetic codes, or metabolism; at worst, they are slovenly, stupid, or without resolve. Meanwhile, she notes, many thin people can indulge in all manner of unhealthy behaviors without being called to account for their body size. In other words, fat people are imbued with little subjectivity no matter what they do, while thin people are imbued with heightened subjectivity no matter what they do.

This is the most pernicious aspect of the analysis by Pollan and others. If junk food is everywhere and people are naturally drawn to it, those who resist it must have heightened powers. When Pollan waxes poetic about his own rarefied, distinctive eating practices, the messianic, self-satisfied tone is not accidental. In describing his ability to overcome King Corn, to conceive, procure, prepare, and serve his version of the perfect meal, Pollan affirms himself as a supersubject while relegating others to objects of education, intervention, or just plain scorn.

Even if it were true that obesity is a public health threat, even if it could be proven that it results from fast-food consumption, and even if we didn’t care about stigmatizing obesity or treating fat people as objects, is Pollan’s way the way out? At the end of a book whose biggest strength is a section that lays out the environmental history and political economy of corn, his answer, albeit oblique, is to eat like he does. The meal that he helped forage and hunt and cooked all by himself, as he puts it, “gave me the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.” To what kind of politics does this lead? Despite his early focus on corn subsidies, Pollan does not urge his readers to write to their congressional representatives about the folly of such subsidies, to comment to the Food and Drug Administration about food additives, or, for that matter, to sabotage fields where genetically engineered corn is grown.

Indeed, he makes no suggestion that we ought to alter the structure of the food system so that all might come to eat better. Pollan betrays himself in his admiration of Joel Salatin, a beyond-organic farmer who denounces federal regulation as an impediment to building a viable local food chain.

Unfortunately, this antiregulatory approach to food politics has taken hold. I have read countless undergraduate papers that begin with the premise that the global food system is anomic and that “if people only knew where their food came from,” food provisioning would evolve to be more ecological, humane, and just. Many of my students have strong convictions that they should and can teach people how and what to eat, as if you could “change the world one meal at a time” without attention to policy.

I worry that Michael Pollan reinforces this privileged and apolitical idea and reinforces the belief that some people–thin people–clearly must have seen the light that the rest are blind to. Pollan is a damn good writer and a smart man, which makes The Omnivore’s Dilemma a compelling read. But I can’t stomach where it leads. In a funny way, it makes me crave corn-based Cheetos.

Excerpted from Gastronomica (Summer 2007). Copyright © 2007 by the Regents of the University of California. Subscriptions: $47/yr. (4 issues) from the University of California Press Journals and Digital Publishing Division, 2000 Center St., Suite 303, Berkeley, CA 94704;

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