So the Philosophe and I recently found ourselves watching a one-hour doccie about a post-mortem of an obese person (a) because we had already had lunch, and b) because it’s been in the news about being a horrible fat-shaming spectacle, so I knew I needed to watch it to either agree with or be irritated by the Twitterers.
“When I see a picture of someone who’s really hugely fat,” Nigella Lawson once told a talk-show host, “I don’t think ‘how hideous’. I think how delicious it must have been to get there”.
Not so Katie Hopkins, who earlier this year embarked on her very own ridiculous “Fat Story“. The conceit*: put on 3-4 stone (that’s about 25 kg) and lose it again to show how easy it is – or rather, that all fat people need is a kick up the arse.
If you haven’t heard of her, this is all you need: she calls herself the biggest bitch in Britain, and was apparently ranked the second most loathed person in the world, after Vladimir Putin. Perfect person for the job, right?
There goes Jamie Oliver again, mouthing off where he has no business, and upsetting the Twitterati:
And although I briefly jumped on that bandwagon, I’m going to go out on a limb here and defend him for once. Or rather, to try to shift the focus. Because so what if he thinks sugar should be taxed? People much more qualified than Jamie Oliver have already pointed out that the idea of sin taxes is simplistic, unrealistic, and largely ineffective. So until we actually see indications of policy decisions based on the ramblings of a celebrity chef (which yes, has indeed happened in the past), then let him say what he likes.
Sugar is so convenient, isn’t it? If you believe the people behind the (predictably challenging-to-watch) film Fed Up, sugar has been a convenient way to hoodwink America into a full-scale obesity epidemic. But even more than that, it turns out to offer a really convenient way to explain away any complexities related to health and eating. Or just as a target for a (simple syrupy) finger of blame.
There have already been several excellent reviews of what’s wrong with Fed Up (very well summarised most recently by Harriet Hall), so I’ll just mention a few points that stuck out for me.
So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africa’s leading opinion makers to challenge our thinking and behaviour when it comes to ethical decision making.’ It was an interesting morning, and some very good speakers (and of course some not so good). Some I’ve also heard before, notably Leonie Joubert, and Tim Noakes.
But I was disappointed by Joubert’s talk for two reasons: first, it was basically the same as her TedX talk, which while a nicely packaged talk (as TED’y type talks are meant to be), seriously oversimplifies the issues around the interactions between our bodies and the environments we live in. It’s simply not true, as she argues, that cities make us fat and sick. It is true that urban environments conduce to making us make poor choices when it comes to what to eat and how much to move (or not). But that’s of course a key problem with TED-y type talks, because delivering big ideas in under 20 minutes leaves no space for nuance or complexity.
She also told the audience that sugar is toxic and addictive, just like cocaine. Well, we’ve been down this road before. And that is also simply not true. The same bits in the brain light up when you eat as when you take cocaine? Yes, that’s because the same bits in the brain light up when we do something pleasurable, and guess what – eating is nice. Most people enjoy it. Nobody seeks out horrible food.
Imagine my surprise when, idly flipping through a local foodie mag, I got to this page:
Is that really an ad for KFC? Yes, indeed. Let’s take a closer look:
Yet a number of researchers have come to believe, as Wells himself wrote earlier this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that ‘all calories are not equal’. The problem with diets that are heavy in meat, fat or sugar is not solely that they pack a lot of calories into food; it is that they alter the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure, tilting the body’s system in favour of fat storage. Wells notes, for example, that sugar, trans-fats and alcohol have all been linked to changes in ‘insulin signalling’, which affects how the body processes carbohydrates. This might sound like a merely technical distinction. In fact, it’s a paradigm shift: if the problem isn’t the number of calories but rather biochemical influences on the body’s fat-making and fat-storage processes, then sheer quantity of food or drink are not the all-controlling determinants of weight gain. If candy’s chemistry tilts you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at all may be as important as the amount of it you consume.
More importantly, ‘things that alter the body’s fat metabolism’ is a much wider category than food. Sleeplessness and stress, for instance, have been linked to disturbances in the effects of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain that the body has had enough to eat. What other factors might be at work? Viruses, bacteria and industrial chemicals have all entered the sights of obesity research. So have such aspects of modern life as electric light, heat and air conditioning. All of these have been proposed, with some evidence, as direct causes of weight gain: the line of reasoning is not that stress causes you to eat more, but rather that it causes you to gain weight by directly altering the activities of your cells. If some or all of these factors are indeed contributing to the worldwide fattening trend, then the thermodynamic model is wrong.
I’ve borrowed the title of this post from an excellent essay by David H. Freedman in The Atlantic about how “junk food” could help curb obesity. The essay begins with three smoothies. The first two are both expensive, heavy on calories, and take several minutes (one of them up to ten) to make. The third is cheaper, lower in calories, and ready in seconds. The first two are considered “healthy” because they come from “healthy” (vegan, organic, wholefood etc) establishments. The third is “unhealthy” because it comes from McDonald’s.
A review essay by Cass Sunstein on a new book which sounds like it poses serious and interesting challenges to the priority many of us (myself included) place on our ability, and freedom, to choose for ourselves:
Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments about the costs and benefits of paternalistic interventions. Even when there is only harm to self, she thinks that government may and indeed must act paternalistically so long as the benefits justify the costs.
Conly is quite aware that her view runs up against widespread intuitions and commitments. For many people, a benefit may consist precisely in their ability to choose freely even if the outcome is disappointing. She responds that autonomy is “not valuable enough to offset what we lose by leaving people to their own autonomous choices.” Conly is aware that people often prefer to choose freely and may be exceedingly frustrated if government overrides their choices. If a paternalistic intervention would cause frustration, it is imposing a cost, and that cost must count in the overall calculus. But Conly insists that people’s frustration is merely one consideration among many. If a paternalistic intervention can prevent long-term harm—for example, by eliminating risks of premature death—it might well be justified even if people are keenly frustrated by it.
If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read this fascinating NY Times piece (excerpted from a forthcoming book) on “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”.
A friend tweeted that it was a ‘brilliant indictment of the food industry’, which I gather it was meant to be, and which I agree it was to some extent. There are some pretty chilling descriptions of industry strategies to sell more calories, including some pretty off-putting language to describe the bodies that those calories are designed for:
In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”
One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”
So while I remain sceptical of the “addictive” nature of “junk food” – or rather, I am concerned with how easy the criteria for “addictions” seem to be to fulfil these days – I can appreciate that it’s in the interests of people selling food that we don’t really need to strive to get us hooked on them. And the evident success of that venture has obviously contributed to the rising levels of obesity and poor health.