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The Obesity Epidemic: It’s Really About Profit

March 16, 2013

News Item: March 11, 2013 Judge Blocks New York City’s Limits on Big Sugary Drinks

A state court judge found the Bloomberg Administration rules “arbitrary and capricious”. And right he is. Read the original New York Times article to get a better understanding of this confusing program.

Basically, Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City, thinks he knows what is best for the health of NYC’s citizens. He has gone on the warpath against some sugary drinks, undoubtedly because obesity-related illnesses cost business and government billions of dollars in lost work time and insurance costs, as well as care for the uninsured.

A Wall Street Journal article from September 2012 reported that the cost of treating obesity doubled in the decade between 1998 and 2008 according to a federal study. The article also stated that researchers reported a 37% increase in the prevalence of obesity between 1998 and 2006. A more recent 2012 study from Cornell University reports that obesity now accounts for about 21% of all U.S. health care expenses.

But taxes on sodas and arcane rules about how big a cup of joe you can have and how much sugar can be served with it are not the answers to the problem. Far from it. Obesity is a complex issue that will require complex solutions that are more than the government saying “Stop drinking so many sodas and sugared coffees, ya big fatso!”

If government wants to really tackle the obesity epidemic, it must first see obesity for what it really is: a symptom, a sign of the times, as it were. Treating a symptom does not get to the cause of the disease that is producing the symptom. It’s our entire system, from our lifestyles to our food production, that’s causing obesity. Government, especially at the federal level, could deal with the major issues that result in the symptom of obesity, if it weren’t busy blaming the individual consumer and aiding and abetting the industries, including Big Food, that contribute to the epidemic.

I am 57 years old and thus old enough to remember when there was not an obesity epidemic, even though cake, cookies, ice cream, candy and soda were all around. I have also been overweight throughout my life, and at times clinically obese, even though I was never a big soda drinker and have not had carbonated beverages other than club soda in at least 7 years. I also gave up coffee entirely in the mid-70′s after OD’ing on caffeine during a final exam period in college. So Starbucks Frappuchinos and their ilk have never crossed my lips.

So what are the major contributors to obesity that the government should be paying more attention to rather than how many sugar packets the barista gives you with your coffee?

STRESS. The stress hormone cortisol increases belly fat. Fat around the mid-section, (the apple shape) as opposed to the thighs and rear (the pear shape) has been linked to various health problems, including increased risk for diabetes type II. We evolved a “fight or flight” stress response to acute stresses such as being chased by a predator. That response does not serve us well when the stress is chronic. Income inequality, job precariousness and the cost of living have increased with our waistlines in the last 2 or 3 decades. Additionally, many people react to stress by overeating, especially when other outlets for stress are not physically available or are too expensive. Government could address obesity by addressing the economic issues in our country that have made so many of us cortisol factories.

GROWTH HORMONES IN MEAT. In the book “Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How flaks, quacks, and hacks pimp the public health” investigative journalist Martha Rosenberg writes: “Chickens were once slaughtered at 14 weeks old, when they weighed about two pounds, but by 2001 they were slaughtered at 7 weeks, when they weighed between four and six pounds.” Attention shoppers! Cooking will not destroy the growth hormones given to our meat and dairy animals. If these chemicals make the animal grow bigger faster, it stands to reason that they will make the consumers of animal products grow bigger faster.

FOOD ALLERGIES AND INTOLERANCES AND GMO’s. Allergies pile on the pounds without people realizing it. You may not know you have an allergy if you don’t break out in hives 15 minutes to a half hour after eating. Soy is one of the common allergens and today soy is in damned near EVERYTHING. A particular annoyance is the prevalence of soy lecithin as an emulsifier. That is a big word for something that blends two usually incompatible elements. Want the oil and vinegar in your salad dressing to stay mixed? Add a little mustard as an emulsifier. But why is soy lecithin in things that don’t need an emulsifier, like a bar of plain dark chocolate?

There has been a large influx of soy into the Western diet in recent decades. Tofu, soy milk, and the ubiquitous lecithin. But soy is not the only culprit. Gluten in wheat is another problem. Even people who do not have full blown celiac disease can find that gluten makes them gain weight. We are not eating the same strains of wheat that our grandparents did. The dwarf wheat that is prevalent today is high yielding but contains a variety of gluten proteins that make us fat and sick. Will Mayor Bloomberg try to ban sandwiches next?

We also don’t have a clear picture of the potential allergic effects of GMOs and their manufacturers (Monsanto, Du Pont and friends) are doing everything they can to fight labeling bills that would at least allow consumers to decide for themselves if they want to knowingly eat GMOs.

Where is the government in this? Busy playing revolving door with the GMO companies so that, for example, a Monsanto executive can write a plan he wants the government to OK, then become the official in the FDA who is in charge of approving the plan, then after a period of “public service” go back to the executive suites of Monsanto.

BIG FOOD’S PROFIT MOTIVES: Stressed-out people often reach for comfort foods. Comfort foods often are laden with sugar and fat. You will never see broccoli as a comfort food. We are hard wired to seek out sugary, fatty foods because, during most of human history, food supplies were unreliable. We took as much sugar and fat for energy use, now and later, as we could because we did not know when the next meal was coming. Now the opposite is true, but the body is still programmed for times of famine. Big Food serves up the addictive sugar and fat in larger portions so as to sell us more food, to make more profit. It is not unlike the Tobacco Industry, which was caught deliberately adding addictive nicotine to its products. Big Food is taking advantage of a biological imperative that we are supposed to fight with “will power” and “self control.”

THE REAL BOTTOM LINE: We all would be better off to fight the profit motive. Capitalism is killing us, and market socialism, however well intended, is not far behind. Nothing but ill has come of making profit off people’s needs. Be it the foreclosure crisis, high unemployment or the obesity epidemic, whenever we place profit over people, people suffer. To blame the people for the misery imposed on them by the systems they were born into is missing the point.

We must stop trying to turn everything we make and do into money. Because if we do not, we will do anything and everything we can get away with to make money. In the food arena this means coal extracts for food coloring, tons of sodium preservatives, three or four types of sweeteners in one food, sweeteners in things that are not meant to be sweet, growth hormones to shorten the cycle from birth to slaughter for meat animals, and GMO’s, including the so-called “Round up Ready” crops that are giving us superweeds.

But it is much easier for government to tell us that we are having too much sugar in our lattés than too much profit motive in our lifestyles. The answer to the obesity epidemic is for food to become a substance that is created for the purpose of real nutrition, to nourish human beings, not a substance that pretends to be nutritious but is really created for profit.


About the Author: Kéllia Ramares-Watson is a 57 year old freelance journalist living in Oakland, CA. She is an associate producer for WINGS – Women’s International News Gathering Service, a syndicated women’s radio program. She is also a member of demonetize.it, a European-based website and email discussion list dedicated to alternative economics such as non-market socialism, the gift economy, the commons, and de-growth solidarity. She holds a B.A. in Economics from Fordham University and a J.D. from Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington.


4 Responses to The Obesity Epidemic: It’s Really About Profit

  1. Kellia on May 18, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Hi folks, I did not know about replying until now. That’s why I am late. Yes, I agree that capitalism is killing us and that there is not enough media coverage of the monetary reasons behind a lot of evil that is happening in the world today.

    Daredevil, Government should take care of the big stuff, like the subsidies for junk food, the lack of supermarkets etc. But I sure as hell don’t want some F’in billionaire telling me what to eat.

  2. liberalvoice on March 22, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    “Capitalism is killing us…” I couldn’t agree more. It will kill us slowly though, so that the food, diet, and pharmaceutical industries, the banks and credit institutions, can first cash-in on our struggles.

  3. friendlyjoe on March 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    I completely agree and not enough is said in the press about the negative affects of profit seeking behavior. Too many people suffer just to make the rich a little richer.

  4. daredevil on March 17, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I agree with you in that so much of the obesity epidemic is the byproduct of a culture with a flawed system of production, and that a more conscious top down approach is required to attack the “root causes” of these symptoms. However, those type of revolutionary changes are the most difficult to implement because they require an across the board re-education of the populous and reorganization of our cultural priorities. I guess we’ve gotten lucky before, to some extent – I’m thinking in particular of the environmental policies enacted during the ’60s and ’70s – but that doesn’t seem like a reliable template that can be reproduced with any certainty.

    I guess I’m playing devil’s advocate here to some degree – defending the tactic of Bloomberg’s take charge approach, despite the policy’s narrow focus and actual design failings. I’m torn between what we should do in “principle” and what we can tangibly accomplish. While I think imposing such fundamental lifestyle changes at the city level is horribly inefficient, I can’t help but wonder if that is the most expedient avenue for immediate change, albeit on a very local level. For example, Austin, TX just recently implemented it’s ban on single use plastic bags to reduce waste and preclude them from littering the countryside. I see this as analogous to some extent, in that reducing waste (like waistlines) can create an immediate relief, even if it doesn’t address why we are so wasteful (or waist-full).

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