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How The Obesity Focus Hurts the Health Movement

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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.

Since the majority of discussions on obesity focus on the personal rather than collective forces at work, Big Food has ample room to foster the insidious illusion that it -- not just its products, but its practices and tactics -- is in no way responsible.

The true epidemic here is not obesity; obesity is simply the most visible symptom of other, more troubling epidemics -- including, but not limited to industry lobbying, Big Food predatory marketing, and misguided agricultural subsidies.

Unfortunately, most discussions on obesity don't make such connections. We are instead encouraged to applaud "solutions" like 100-calorie packs of cookies and complimentary pedometers at fast-food restaurants.

If obesity is "the problem," then what is the solution? A population that is of normal weight? I won't deny that some medical and health risks increase with obesity, but it is possible to be at a "healthy weight" while subsisting on minimally nutritious foods.

Thinness does not mean one eats enough fiber, gets a sufficient amount of minerals from their diet, or limits added sugars. In my nutrition career, I quickly learned from working with patients that size doesn't tell the tale. I can think of many overweight individuals with great blood glucose and blood pressure numbers, and several thin individuals with poor dietary habits who presented with hypertension and pre-diabetes.

And, while many people rang the alarm this week with obesity predictions, they may have missed out on a much more important article in this week's New York Times on how fitness is much more important than weight.

So, how do we step up conversations about public health to tackle true problems rather than symptoms? Rather than an aimless war against obesity, efforts should instead be used towards a movement "for" something. Such a movement can't afford to be vague. A movement "for health," for instance, can too easily be easily appropriated by the food industry ("Baked Cheetos are healthy!") and quickly nosedive.

The "war on obesity" is in desperate need of reframing and reconceptualization if it hopes to progress and fix some gargantuan wrongs.

To move forward, we must focus on -- and voice support for -- concrete concepts, such as accessibility to healthful foods for disenfranchised communities, regulations that don't make it so easy for Big Food to have almost unilateral control on health messaging, and agricultural policy that supports nutrition policy. While we're at it, let's make it clear that public health threats (from genetically modified foods to high intakes of sugar) are equally real for everyone, regardless of waist size.

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