Marc Ambinder, writing for the Atlantic, looks at the social, structural, environmental, and personal causes of the obesity epidemic in the United States—and its possible solutions.
There is no single cause we can point to for our rates of obesity, which far outpace those of other developed nations. There are a number of factors, including cheap subsidies for Big Agribusiness and lower wages for manufacturing workers, and so there is no single “magic bullet” that will stop the epidemic. But it can be done. The question is, are the societal forces that keep us fat and sedentary too entrenched to be dislodged?
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Perhaps my own losing struggle with weight reflects a failure of willpower. That seems more plausible to me than the argument that I was a helpless victim of Arby’s. But most fat people aren’t like me: as an upper-middle-class professional, I could draw on plenty of resources in my battle against weight. The people most vulnerable to obesity, however, do not have access to healthy food, to role models, to solid health-care and community infrastructures, to accurate information, to effective treatments, and even to the time necessary to change their relationship with food. And if that is true for fat adults, it is even more true for fat children, many of whose choices are made for them. Their vulnerability to obesity is much more the result of societal inequalities than of any character flaw. Indeed, for all the attention paid to fat’s economic costs, the epidemic’s toll on children is a stark reminder of its moral dimension. Without some form of intervention, researchers worry, large numbers of black and Hispanic children in the United States will grow up overweight or obese and lead shorter, less fulfilling lives. Is that a legacy we want to live with?
If we are to solve the many problems that obesity is creating for American society, we must first move beyond the stale “willpower versus the food-industrial complex” debate. We need to understand what causes obesity, and what can really address it. And we need to try everything from rezoning fast-food restaurants and restricting food advertising to supporting new treatments and rewriting insurance policies. We won’t summon the collective will to take these steps until we recognize that our attitudes toward obesity are as unhealthy as the condition itself. We don’t want to look at fat people, much less pay for their medical care; we don’t want to be contaminated by them. But if we want fewer fat people in our midst, then we, as a nation, must start by treating them without condescension or contempt, and recognize the real obstacles that stand between them and better health.