Let's Talk About Obesity For A Sec, K?

Ah, Reddit. The beacon of modern discourse! Where you can post pictures of random things and talk about it endlessly with complete strangers. What did people do before the internet? Recently, a Reddit user posted a photo of an obese mannequin, and while some of the responses were downright ignorant and condescending towards the larger members of our society, the overarching theme of the thread was that obesity is a serious issue.

Yes. Yes it is. But it’s not because 1/3 of America is greedily stuffing their face from sunrise to sunset. It’s not because we’re some disgusting country full of fatties, unlike China (as one Reddit user said, only to get shut down by another who pointed out that China is currently struggling with a rising obesity rate). It’s because the food systems in this country are worse than Chris Brown’s twitter feed (RIP).

We’re the country that had to come up with a term like “food deserts,” because we have densely populated areas that have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Nutrition education is just barely beginning to pull itself out of the food pyramid mindset, which is so outdated it might as well be covered with hieroglyphics (wait, it kind of is). Most food deserts are in low-income areas, so it’s not that people want to go to a fast food chain or eat a microwave dinner, it’s that those are their only options.

The time it would take to drive to a supermarket in a more affluent area, the cost of gas/bus fare to get to and from there on a regular basis, and the time it takes to cook are huge hindrances to someone working two jobs, let alone trying to raise a family. SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps) don’t cover things like vitamins, and only recently have CSA’s (community supported agriculture) and farmers’ markets begun accepting food stamp cards.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who is overweight is poor. It doesn’t mean that anyone from a low-income household is obese. It just means that the reason we have an obesity rate, and one that is so high, is because our social structure and food systems are the biggest enablers of it.

So before you gasp in shock at an oversized mannequin, perhaps think about the true implications of it – not that we’re a country full of greedy, overfed burger addicts, but one that needs to seriously rethink its food systems. Between our lax GMO laws (that are pretty much the most ludicrous in the world, and focused on benefitting the seed company, even if its at the health cost of the consumer), and the immensity of our class division when it comes to nutrition, there are a lot of ways to look past an XXL mannequin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=289400654 Philippa Claire MacDuff

    I agree with this to a certain extent but not entirely – a lot of it is also down to greed. Not necessarily down to the individual – greed and gluttony can be perpetuated in a number of ways. For example what about portion sizes in the US? If you order a salad (for example) at a chain restaurant it is usually big enough to feed a family of 4. No-one should be eating that much food in one sitting. And because you have paid for it, you feel an obligation to not waste any – thus overeating. Good food shouldn’t be about quantity.

    I do, however, recognise the problem of obesity among the working classes – if there is a fish and chip shop at the end of the street where you can get a meal for £5, sometimes it’s easier and cheaper than going to the supermarket half a mile away to buy a bunch of ingredients and cook for your family when you have spent 8-10 hours working your proverbial off for a low wage.

    • http://www.juliagazdag.com Julia Gazdag

      It’s funny — when my family first moved to the US, one of the things we found most jarring wasn’t just the larger portions, but how much people wasted, because they never finished what was on their plates and just threw it in the garbage. In related news, I’m also working on a post about composting 😀

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512784110 Rhiannon Evans

      I would love to know where these fish and chip shops are where you can feed a family for £5. I also don’t know how much of the problem can be attributed to cost. Yes, really fresh, organic, fancy stuff is out of reach for a lot of working class people but food doesn’t have to be expensive to be nutritious. It’s not like you can only have high-end produce or McDonald’s every night and nothing in between. I’m a student and I manage to only cook food that’s cheap, quick to prepare and relatively healthy. I think sometimes people need to take more responsibility for their own choices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000786695349 Hallie Eva Mae Newcomb

    I think high stress also attributes to a weight problem in our society. I typically don’t have a weight problem but over the summer my mom was ill and the stress caused me to gain about 15 lbs even though I had a relatively healthy diet. Unrelated side not the mannequin doesn’t look like a fat person it just looks really super weird. I just had to add that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1126223201 Kenny Smith

    Food deserts and improved access to nutrition probably aren’t (entirely) the source of the problem. While there is connection between obesity and income, my guess is that this is tied more to cultural factors than access to healthy foods.


    • http://www.juliagazdag.com Julia Gazdag

      I absolutely and completely disagree. I would also point out that as stated above, food regulation and modification is also a big issue, and also ties into access — nutritious, organic, fresh food access makes a huge difference. Not drinking milk and eating meat that is pumped full of hormones, vegetables that have vitamins and not altered DNA that can be harmful, etc. It’s not a question that food deserts exist, and it is an insult to every person who does not live within reasonable distance of a store that offers fresh produce to question whether that means they live in a food desert or not. There is a clear correlation between economic status and food access, especially when an organic apple costs so much more than a regular or GMO one, and is available in greater abundance at Whole Foods than it is at even Trader Joe’s, let alone the corner store that has little or no fresh produce.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=535765463 Gabriel Tails DeVine

    While I agree that there are many societal factors when it comes to the obesity epidemic, there are also a lot of personal responsibility issues too. Two major points come to mind:

    Choice. My wife and I spend a lot more money on food because we buy as clean as we can. We also spend more time than anyone we know preparing our food since we cook everything we eat. Typically, an hour and a half a day is spent on doing dishes and preparing all of our food for the day. We certainly aren’t rolling in the money, and although there are a lot of classes we want to take and a lot of material goods we would like, we choose to spend more money on our health. An example is my obese brother who buys new gadgets like they’re going out of style, yet eats nothing but fast food and snack foods. He has access to a plethora of grocery stores and farmers markets, but instead, chooses what he sees as a cheap and convenient alternative that allows him his lifestyle of work, video games, and quick food.

    Also, value. Every so often I have a cheat day, and I usually schedule those for vacations or trips. One time I was with my family and after dinner they went to get milkshakes. It being my cheat day, I decided to get a regular milkshake. Endless discussion raged on because of the value of the large over the regular. The fact that it’s only $0.50 more for more than twice as much was a point of contention with my family when it came down to how much I wanted to spend for my dessert. For the record, they cashed in on the special “value,” and I chose to make what they thought was a stupid mistake, which ended up saving me 300 calories, and 28g of sugar. Value isn’t just limited to that example, either. Most people see their time as more valuable than their health, and thus, don’t give any thought as to what they’re putting in their bodies.

    In the end, we need societal changes in addition to campaigns spreading the idea of personal accountability. We need EBT and SNAP to be accepted at grocery stores, farmers markets, and elsewhere, rather than Dollar Tree, Jack in the Box and Wendy’s. We need to stop with the American obsession with value and encourage proper portions. We need to preach accountability and encourage people to take charge of their decisions.

    */rant* I say all of this as a “former fat kid.” Until I was 22 I was dramatically overweight, and one day, I decided to do something about it– Everyone has it within them to instigate change.

    • http://www.juliagazdag.com Julia Gazdag

      I think that touches on the education part — we don’t have proper nutrition education, and a lot of people, while able to make choices, aren’t able to make informed ones. I think it’s also arguable to say that education, especially on topics past the basics of the main subjects taught across the country, also is hugely affected by privilege.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=535765463 Gabriel Tails DeVine

        While I agree that nutrition education is virtually nonexistent, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who thought their decision to eat McDonalds was nutritionally sound. In my experiences, it mostly boils down to choice, which was once my problem as well. (On a slightly related note, many people have asked me to give them advice and / or a plan for getting in shape, and when I bring up the nutritional aspect, the answer is always the same: “That’s too difficult. Can’t I just workout more?” These people have access to farmers markets and grocery stores, but are making the choice to continue eating poorly.)
        It’s worth noting that this isn’t limited to obese people. I’ve seen Ectomorphic (Naturally skinny) people who eat garbage all day (Though their body type usually exempts them from these arguments because there isn’t a physical manifestation of their unhealthy lifestyle), and it boils down to choice with them as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001502182949 Jay ‘Jay Boy’ Smith

    still, theres a certain level of self preservation involved. at the end of the day its up to you as an individual to decide what you eat, just because unhealthy options are more readily available doesnt mean that there isnt healthy options available to you just harder to find. i think people dont take enough responsibilty for themselves and rely on the government and other people to make decisions for them. a striking example of this working was during ww2 britains government could not afford to feed us and people stepped up and started to grow their own food instead of relying on them and during this period britain was at its healthiest, co incidence? of course not if you let big company process your food of course its going to be unhealthy if you trust anything trust yourself. you can always do more to help yourself, laziness is not an excuse to be unhealthy.

    • http://www.juliagazdag.com Julia Gazdag

      Yeah, so none of this sits well with me at all. While many communities are fighting to be able to grow community gardens in empty lots (that can be expensive, inaccessible etc), space to grow food is not always readily available. If you have some kind of brilliant solution as to how a person working 12-16 hour days living in an apartment with no yard can grow their own food, let alone find the time and energy to drive 30 minutes each way so they can buy fresh produce and take it home and put in more time cooking it, you let me know. That sure sounds like a bunch of lazy excuses to me.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512784110 Rhiannon Evans

        As he said, that was just an example of how people made choices to help themselves. He’s not saying in order to eat healthily everyone should grow their own fruit and veg, as obviously that’s not possible for a lot of people. But people *can* choose to buy something a bit healthier, even if it isn’t as convenient as a microwave meal. They *can* choose to go to get fresh produce from a shop that’s a bit further away rather than getting junk food from the nearest shop. And as I’ve said in a previous comment, eating relatively well doesn’t have to involve hours of preparation and expensive ingredients. If people eat unhealthily because they can’t be bothered to put the effort into looking after themselves that’s the definition of lazy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1124959754 Melinda Martini

    I think there are some social and individual responsibilities that need to be taken. First off, educating people about body image and health, I know plenty of people who are just larger but are completely healthy, there needs to be a shift in this idea of thin as healthy because that is not always the case. Secondly people who are saying it comes down to what you want to spend your money on if you don’t have much, what about the people who don’t have even the luxury of choosing to get rid of something unnecessary for the sake of eating healthier or organic food. The truth is pasta will go a lot further to feed a family than vegetables. I understand that eating healthy is a lifestyle “choice” but often times people aren’t really given that choice, they are more told it is their choice and then forced into whatever they can. The truth it’s not really the place of anyone who has the choice to judge or diminish the humanity of a person based on their size and their ability or inability to eat in a healthy manner. I come from a family where eating your vegetables is important, just like most, but my family has also struggled with putting quality food on the table that was going to be enough to feed everybody and the only way we managed was through eating many foods that were high in carbohydrates because they’re filling and get you through the day. I have a problem with people thinking that if my parents had a choice between that and all natural, organic foods they would do the same. People in this country are told they are given choice, and we are, but the products you can choose from,the quality and such are divided on the lines of socio-economic status.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685501846 Lily Burger.

    I think that you’re only considering the extremes here. You seem to be saying that people can only either a) spend a large amount of money on good, nutritious food and then proceed to spend a large amount of time cooking it, or b) eat complete crap, aka fast food. This isn’t the case at all. There is an in between, and I think that this in between is more possible than you’e making it seem. Furthermore, like a lot of people here, I do think that people need to take more responsibility for their own food choices. That’s not to say that our food system isn’t flawed, because it is for all of the reasons you’ve pointed out, but it’s certainly not all the big bad government’s fault.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506077842 Laura Morris

    I recently wrote a research paper on the reasons why low income Americans are at greater risk of diabetes-the kind where dialysis is a way of life. Most of my paper centered on American Indian reservations and the growing populations of both diabetic elders and the youth, trying to make good food choices, and get educated. While I agree that there are many food deserts the problem isn’t that the food is not available, it’s that there isn’t a demand for it, and the fresher fruits and veggies go bad, and the grocer loses money. So they stock up on things that are always bought-cheap, salty, sugary food. There is a growing number of not only American Indian cultures, but also Americans through out the country who are making the decision to eat better, I think the future looks bright. Though I’m a big girl myself I’m pretty healthy, I exercise and eat well, I even have a garden and bottle local foods when I can. So there is no black and white, there is always middle ground.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=14102782 Caroline Jeffery

    the idea of personal responsibility in making healthy food choices is true, but ultimately micro. education on how to make healthy food choices is macro. having access to healthy food choices is macro. personal responsibility is one small piece in a VERY large pie. the US has the most arable land of any other country in the world. we produce enough food to feed the world, a.k.a. prevent people from starving, and yet people starve. personal responsibility is the runt of the litter.
    [as an aside, julia, i agree about your comment on waste! i recently starting composting (and love it!) and plan on supplementing my garden soil in the spring (and i recognize my privilege in having a garden, having time to tend my garden, and having access to the information to help my garden thrive). looking forward to your composting post!]

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001257112153 Kaylee Yocum

    I think this article is confusing two different points. Eating nutritionally sound food is different from eating, non-GMO/organic foods. Peas bought at a farmers market have the same nutritional content as frozen/canned peas bought at the grocery store. Also, people have been “genetically modifying” foods since the domestication of animals and plants, it’s called agriculture and animal husbandry. Without it, we would not have the abundance of food that we have at such an affordable price. You can dislike “GMO” foods , but it allows more people to put food in their stomachs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=193903012 Samantha Miller

    Julia– I just wanted to say that every SINGLE one of your articles I’ve read are pure gold! Sometimes I think we have the same brain (although yours is clearly the better writer) Keep it up, you’re amazing and I love your outlook on life. And everything else :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003933494 Alyx Duarte

    I think the two (income and nutritional education) overlap. ‘X’ amount of calories of natural plant food fills the stomach more than ‘X’ amount of calories of unnatural, processed foods. For example, a proper serving size of hmmm… Flaming Hot Cheetos is 1 oz. Thats only about 20 chips, and those 20 chips contain 160 calories (100 FROM FAT)! You could get the same amount of calories from not one, but TWO apples. Which, in my opinion, are a lot more filling (mucho fiber!). But which one is more accessible? The Cheetos. They’re sold everywhere, and for the price of 99 cents… thats a “steal.” So they buy the Cheetos, they have 20 chips, but they’re not full. Another serving. Another serving. Another serving… and before you know it you’re up 640 calories.
    Personally, I like learning about nutrition; I find it very interesting. This is my body, and I want to make sure Im putting the right things into it. Thankfully there’s a Trader Joe’s across the street from campus, and a new Whole Foods in Newport (Yayyy!) And yes, these places can be pricy… but I just think they’re worth it. It’s like getting Chevron Supreme w/Techron!! But I am a broke college student, so there have been times when I’ve had to go with the instant noodles, chips, etc. And Im not going to lie, they didn’t taste horrible, I liked them… Im not the epitome of the perfect eater. I just think it’s fishy how something that only costs 50 cents tastes this decent… What’s the catch? What’s this food going to do to my body? I prefer going to a natural food store knowing my food is healthy, fresh, organic, and is going to give my body the fuel it needs to get through the day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=66501223 Rachel Pody Allen

    As as kid… I grew up with a fresh garden every year. we caned and put up fruit and veggies like no tomorrow (my fingers still hurt at the thought of shelling that many peas) As an Adult I live in a desert and their is not a lot of local produce I have notice that it is usually 3 times the price to buy fruits and vegetables are untampered with. Where the vegetables that are genetically altered and pesticide ridden are much cheaper. I agree with individual responsibility when society does not cripple the choice. My food budget is pretty high ( food is important to my husband and I) but there is NO WAY we could eat as healthily as we do if we even had one child right now. Plus we NEVER eat out… I think it is easy for people to say that it is an individuals responsibility because then it removes the responsibility of society to look at what is happening. We need to remove GMO’s from foods. Stop using corn for everything under the sun and stop over refining everything! It is easy to blame it on the individual.. If it was just the individual 1/3 of our population would not be obese.. that is an epidemic, and it has gone so far out of proportion of individuals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509162271 Elizabeth Fallon

    I think it is a mixture of a huge amount of bad foods pioneered by scientists, there’s many more odd manipulated versions of foods in the US then anywhere else.
    I also think it’s because fast food is SO cheap there.
    There’s also a culture of ‘I want it and I want it now’ that doesn’t exist so much anywhere else, a sense of entitlement maybe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668841875 Barry Gill

    Nutritional education is certainly something that can and should be improved. Another thing that could be looked at is the systematic brainwashing through corporate advertising that is a kind of background radiation impacting on so many people’s lives.

    You NEVER see awesome advertisements for great broccoli or amazing beets on TV. You only see adverts for meat and cheese. Anything that is not meat or cheese is a side and ergo not as important. Give people the same message enough times from enough angles and it becomes the truth, whether conscious or not.

    (This is also evident in how skinny women are portrayed as what all men want – skinny women sell sex in advertising)

    So changing food advertising laws would have a longer term “macro” effect as Caroline put it and coupled with a decent nutritional education plan could seriously change the world we live in.

    Having become a vegetarian recently, I know how difficult it is to make the time to prepare meals that are both healthy AND easy/quick to make. But that difficulty IS short-lived as you develop a stockpile of recipes that you can whip up in a flash and a freezer full of containers with meals prepared in advance.

    I suppose what I am getting at is that a decent nutritional education plan should ultimately include basic cooking/culinary skills that help people reduce their reliance on meat and cheese (which are notoriously unhealthy in the quantities we eat them) and stop thinking of meat as the meal and everything else as an unnecessary garnish.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1221840022 Abigail Moss

    What is bad about being obese? The health risks are actually quite minimal as long as some nutritional balance and exercise is involved. The fight against obesity is telling lots of large people in this country that they have failed, that they need to be fixed. The more pressure we put on people to be thin, the more problems (like eating disorders) will emerge in our society. Just let large people be large.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=620374665 Lisa Albert

    I just want to say..that the mannequin is extremely disproportionate..it’s bothering in funny way cause the head and hands are too small for the rest of the body..it’s lost it’s forearms too? Haha..

    Anyway….It’s extremely difficult to eat healthy when you’re on the college diet. I think once apon a time the college diet was just easier and a lazy excuse…but now it’s so serious. It’s all some of us can literally afford…and have time for.
    Be in class at least full time to get most of your Financial-Aid…need to at least work 20 hours a week to keep the food card…..gonna need more than 20 hours to keep the roof over your head as well as bills payed and any left over school charges…. oh wait..books and supplies too..(even worse if in art school like moi..all my money -tear-) Might end up working two jobs….Darn..I’ve all this home work to do…

    It gets to the point where…

    Sleep? What is that? Fresh fruit? I forget what fresh tastes like?
    I miss home cooked meals…..i would kill for a nap some grapes right now…..

    I’ve managed to stay a healthy weight up until this year…the stress finally caught up to me..and I’m working 30-35 hours a week, and trying to finish my BFA. I’ve always had trouble just trying to afford food at all…it’s not like i spend money elsewhere…i don’t have free money anymore, haha….I think for many Americans…most of our money is never ours anymore…to the point where, not just organic things….that’s up and beyond,…I’m talking, just the basics become luxuries….it’s hard…it’s frustrating…

    During my freshman year of college…I barely ate anything at all…because I had no other options. I can do better for myself now, at least better than back then however, I still have my limitations…I’m almost never at home due to school and work, a lot of my food intake is snacking…i had to stop wasting money on things i would have to make into a meal…they would always waste…and i cant afford to be wasting money. I had to keep thinking of ways to get by without spending as much and buying as much…

    I just wanted to speak on behalf of a niche of people who are struggling to eat healthier…if the the younger generations struggle this much, after the fact we have more adult Americans with health problems they couldn’t avoid at the time…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1340072484 Abigail Marie Carrozza

    I agree with what a lot of people are saying…while many people don’t have access to healthy food many do but refuse to eat healthy. The second you say “well, this is whole grain” people cringe. They see something green and wince. Advertising has people practically having an orgasm over a potato chip or a candy bar but you’ll never see someone in a commercial saying “ah!” after a refreshing glass of juiced vegetables. And obese or not preventable health problems related to diet are on the rise and not just among those in ‘food deserts’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722884710 Michael Lee Elmendorf

    Go to an “old-time” movie theater, have a seat. The fit is snug. Go to a new “stadium” theater. You may be able to fit two of the old-time movie theater seats into a stadium theater “seat”? The airlines now have to build larger seats in the newer planes. People are sadly getting wider and very unhealthy. I am sorry, to me, it is disturbing. It is nice for me to run marathons. It is nice to be surrounded by healthy people. It said going, anywhere, and seeing people not taking care of themselves, physically

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722884710 Michael Lee Elmendorf

    It SAD going, anywhere, and seeing people not taking care of themselves, physically*

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