Who is to blame for the rise in obesity?

Issue section: 
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The government announced a new initiative to tackle obesity, but it is limited, poorly resourced and fails to
acknowledge that the stress of living under capitalism is a major cause of the condition, argues Rhoda Thomas.

The government’s role in supporting the food industry — evident throughout the pandemic — is to encourage us to eat and drink (witness the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme) and to return to work in city centres, thus giving a boost to pubs and coffee shops, regardless of health risks. Simultaneously, it lambasts us for ‘obesity’ — a kind of ‘gaslighting’ whereby we come to believe that obesity is of our own doing, thus deflecting from the reality of ‘profits before people’. Food corporations which supply foodstuffs packed full of saturated fat, sugar, salt and calories, together with the weight loss industry and advertisers, are huge stakeholders in the economy. In addition, employers in every field push us harder and harder at the expense of our health.
Compared to the billions of pounds invested in marketing by ‘Big Food’, the government’s allocation for an obesity strategy is paltry. And three weeks after launching the strategy this summer, the Tories abolished Public Health England, and assigned the project to cashstrapped local health services, diluting its potential and avoiding any chance of tackling the global corporations. How damaging is obesity? Obesity shortens lives.
It’s the single biggest cause of preventable cancer after smoking, is a major precursor to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and heightens risk from dangerous complications in Covid-19. ‘Fat shaming’, fuelled by the media, is pervasive and provokes anxiety, depression, and a dread of putting on weight. Once obesity is established, changes in the body can prevent successful dieting outcomes. Bariatric surgery to restrict food intake is a major growth area in the healthcare business. The more dissatisfied with ourselves we become, the more we buy products that might alleviate our distress. Sadly, the NHS has not been properly equipped to address weight problems and the medical approach reinforces personal responsibility rather than the ‘obesogenic’ environment.
Our current system separates medicine from social action — health workers need to be involved in social advocacy within the community. It is no accident that obesity is worse in neoliberal freemarket economies. Britain and the US are both near the top of the list of highest obesity rates in the world. In the UK, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese. Widening social inequality has brought about a dramatic increase in childhood obesity, with a reversal from being underweight to being overweight in children from poorer backgrounds. It is not simply poverty itself that causes the problems but differences in the way we live. As austerity policies have taken hold, it has become commonplace for workers to be subjected to overwork, low wages, fear of unemployment and poor housing — all major stressors.
This makes it easier to rely on convenience foods and takeaways, to skip exercise and to increase alcohol consumption. Fast-food outlets have been allowed to proliferate near schools and colleges and in deprived areas. Around two million people use foodbanks and have little choice about what we eat. The competitive and target-driven culture at both school and work triggers ‘emotional eating’ throughout our lives. With cutbacks and fewer escape routes, abuse and coercion in personal relationships is increasing and frequently leads to weight problems. A history of sexual abuse often emerges in cases of extreme obesity and eating disorders.
The move to online living and working, exacerbated by the pandemic and fewer opportunities for exercise, increases obesity. Negative stereotyping of people with obesity affects work opportunities, and overweight people tend to earn less than their counterparts. The promotion of health should be included in trade union demands for job security, decent pay and conditions, and stress reduction. Government interventions such as the ‘Sugar Tax’ (which has not met its target) and food labelling (now up for postBrexit debate) have failed to make the required impact on obesity rates. Sustainable food initiatives often need subsidies to make quality food affordable.
Pressure from grassroots projects like the youth-led campaign Bite Back 2030, from obesity forums and health activists, needs to be increased and a strong social movement built that fights for good health for everyone. Capitalism protects the profits and reputations of companies which actively damage our health. It perpetuates the myth of individual culpability. It stigmatises us when we put on weight. It makes profit out of our misfortune and won’t properly resource prevention or support strategies. The pandemic has exposed the way profits have been prioritised over our safety like never before. Obesity is a visible consequence of capitalist greed. A socialist alternative which puts our health and wellbeing first, not last, is the only real way we can save lives.