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Infusing a Little Loving Kindness into the 'War on Obesity'

06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"You're a big-fat-meany!" I overhear my six-year-old yelling at his older brother. Somehow, their peaceful game of chess has deteriorated into a power struggle. My nine-year-old is quick to fire back: "Yeah, we'll you're a big-fat-meany too! And who cares if we never play again!"

They're in the living room, and I'm in the kitchen, separating chicken bones and gristle from meat to use for soup, so I holler to them: "hey guys, please work it out without name-calling." After a short silence, I hear their voice tones start to soften. Still, I feel a mix of sadness and horror. While neither of them is overweight, studies suggest that a growing number of their peers are, or will be. And no doubt many of these kids face a lifetime of ridicule and derision as labels like "big," "fat," and the like become some of the most powerful put-downs.

The power of such insults is rooted in a culture that has declared war on obesity. To be sure, there are good reasons to think this war is "just." As is well-known, the past several decades has witnessed a increasing number of U.S. citizens, including children, carrying considerably more poundage on their bodies. By some counts, as many as two-thirds of adult Americans are "overweight," and nearly a third of them could be classified as "obese." Given the multiple ways that excessive heft can compromise one's physical well being, and given the financial toll obesity takes on our nation's health care system, it's not surprising that institutions from various corners of our society -- from the medical establishment to the federal government -- have joined forces to combat this perceived evil. Beyond institutions, ordinary folks from all walks of life concur that weight-loss is a cause worth fighting for. Indeed, the necessity of downsizing our bodies may be the one thing upon which a nation that is otherwise deeply divided can readily agree.

I share many Americans' concern about the growing girth of our population. However, I question some of the presuppositions that have turned this concern into a culture-wide crusade. In previous blogs, for example, I have challenged the all-too-facile assumptions that health = thinness and that fitness comes in only one slender size. Here, I want to ask whether the bellicose approach to resolving the obesity "crisis" is, in the long run, an effective strategy.

A combative approach is apparent both in the explicit language used to describe the war on obesity, and in the implicit notion this battle conveys, namely, that fat is the enemy. The trouble with this approach is the trouble with most wars: it exacerbates the very conflicts it is supposed to resolve, while it fails to address the underlying conditions that give rise to the problems in the first place.

The war-like mentality that pervades America's "battle with the bulge" adds fuel to the fire by fostering an antagonistic attitude towards the body. Most weight-loss diets, for example, foster this antagonism. Based on the principle of regulating your appetite, they instruct you to eat certain foods, in restricted amounts, at particular times, in a calculated manner--regardless of what your body wants and/or needs. Some fitness programs reinforce this regimented approach by establishing standard measures of time, distance, and/or calories burned as the markers of a "successful" workout. Unfortunately, this externally-driven, controlling approach to exercise and eating erodes our internal capacity to listen to the cues our bodies send us (i.e., feelings of hunger, satiety, a need for movement, etc.), which only reinforces the dissociation many people who struggle with their weight already experience.

Another problem with treating fat (and the urge to eat) as the "enemy" is that it leads to the demonization of fat people. This compounds the sense of shame many large-bodied people already feel and may try to escape through unhealthy eating patterns. Indeed, the health problems that some people who are obese experience may be exacerbated by the self-loathing they feel as the result of living in a culture that views them not only as unhealthy but immoral. In the U.S. today, and in white-western culture in particular, the "fat" body is the antithesis of the "good" body. And the presumed virtue of the "good" (read: thin) body is not merely a matter of health or aesthetics. Rather, the tight and trim form has come to symbolize an inner state of self-control -- a quality akin to saintliness in a world that often feels like it's spinning out of control.

Yet even a cursory glance at history reveals the relativity of the thin body's "goodness" (and, correspondingly, of the fat body's "badness"). Just over a hundred years ago, plump was considered a desirable, healthy, attractive form, while thinness was seen as scraggily and even sickly. In fact, if one considers late nineteenth-century female body ideals, one would be forced to conclude that, like happiness and beauty, fitness comes in more than one size.

In addition to perpetuating the assumptions and dynamics that tacitly fuel the obesity epidemic, a war-like approach to resolving this crisis fails to adequately address this problem at its roots. Insofar as the "war on obesity" focuses primarily on making people thinner, it runs the risk of ignoring why so many have gained weight in the first place.

There are both social and personal forces that fuel the trend towards bigness, and these forces are intimately connected. On a societal level, we live in an era where cheap, nutritionally-bankrupt, calorie-dense food is abundant. As food journalist Michael Pollan has pointed out (see In Defense of Food), this abundance, itself unprecedented in human history, is deeply rooted in conventional agricultural methods. These methods center on the production of a few basic crops (i.e., corn, wheat, soy), which are grown in large monocultures (wreaking havoc on the planet) and manufactured into "edible substances" (i.e., items that have been so heavily processed that they no longer resemble real food -- think Twinkies). With the help of additives, fats, sugars, and artificial flavors, these food-like products contain tastes that, according to former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, can be highly addictive (see The End of Overeating, as well as a recent study that underscores the addictive quality of fatty foods (http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.2519.html)

The social and personal roots of the obesity epidemic intersect in this commercially-driven system of production, since for many people, fast, cheap, highly processed food functions as a "drug of choice." At least temporarily, eating such food can make your problems disappear. For a few fleeting moments, chewing and swallowing a candy bar (or a bag of chips, box of cookies, order of fries, bowl of macaroni and cheese, etc.), can numb the pain, provide immediate comfort, and generate instant pleasure. Such a fix is not only quick and easily available; it's also legal. No one has ever been arrested for possession of Oreos, gummy bears, or Cheetos. Yet for a lot of folks, these edible substances function in a manner similar to narcotics: they take the edge off of life. And like most addictions, food cravings make certain companies very rich.

At a time when a historic number of people are out of work; when our political divisions seem deeper than the Grand Canyon; when the deteriorating state of our ecosystems mirrors the worsening health of our minds and bodies; when we're still spending billions fighting wars abroad even though public schools at home are grossly under-funded; when social ills like racism, sexism, and homophobia continue to infect our relationships and communities; when the pressures of balancing work and family engender feelings of depression and isolation, leaving fewer citizens who care about the common good...in short, in a time of great national stress, is it any wonder that more and more people are turning to food as a way to check out?

There are other factors (beyond those I have already mentioned) that contribute to a culture that is making us fatter. These range from our sedentary life styles, to the relatively higher cost of healthy (i.e., unprocessed) foods, to our mindless eating habits, to our fast-paced work days that leave little time for cooking and savoring nutritious meals. All of these (and more) contribute to an overarching pattern that disconnects our "minds" from our "bodies," makes food a viable means of escape, and turns "fat" into an opponent that must be destroyed for us to be saved.

If we are to move in the direction of greater overall health as a nation -- including our physical, mental, and spiritual well being--we need to dig deeper than the current "war on obesity" encourages us to do. We need to infuse this battle with some loving-kindness by understanding the complex causes of obesity and by envisioning a broader, more peaceful path to the wholeness we seek. Such a path would require us to rethink our relationship to the earth (i.e., how food is produced), to our appetites (i.e. what it feels like to be hungry or full), and to our suffering (i.e., how we handle the stresses and pain of our lives). Ultimately, it would encourage us to see that the real enemy is not fat, but fear, apathy, and ignorance.