18 October 2007

The Fat of the Land

More horrifying and frankly bewildering statistics about the increasing number of fat people in our society were fed to us with our cornflakes this morning. My main confusion arises from the fact that 'by 2050 most of us will be "obese"' which my mind automatically substitutes with 'by 2050 most of us will be dead'. Perhaps it's just the time of year?

You may have noticed that I refuse to use the word 'obese' outside protective quotation marks. This is because being fat is something we all understand: it is a normal human condition resulting from a combination of eating too much and not using up enough calories through exercise or thought (yes, I know, but indulge me!). Obesity, on the other hand, is a medical condition for which, down on the pharm, they are busy developing pills they can sell to us at vastly inflated prices creating fat profits to match their fat customers.

While fat may indeed be a feminist issue it is also decidedly a class issue, but not in the direct way we are led to believe. The relationship between over-eating and health has been found to be related to the structure of society under capitalism, rather than a class-related propensity for eating too many chips. In Britain on the Couch Oliver James argued that the competitiveness inherent in a capitalist economy and the hierarchy it generates leads to low serotonin amongst the ‘losers’ in society.

Later research has shown that the levels of serotonin in the brain are, indeed, lower in middle-aged men and women in lower social classes. A relationship has also been identified between lower serotonin and over-eating, as well as smoking and drinking alcohol to excess. In other words it is the unequal distribution of power, and the chemically based depression this creates, that is a central cause of the increase in obesity.

Food is the most basic of all human needs. Capitalism is failing to meet our need for food adequately. The food that is available is often so adulterated and so lacking in basic nutrition that it creates ill-health and cravings for other, more satisfying foods. The connection between food and the locality, the identity that is built through seasonal foods or local cuisines is being destroyed by a global fast-food culture.

More fundamentally still, the distribution of food between the West and the South is so poor that, we sit unhealthily on our sofas, obediently over-eating, while watching our brothers and sisters starve in Africa or North Korea. This is a fundmenteal indictment of capitalism as an economic system: it is failing in the central role of an economy, the efficient distribution of our most basic commodity, food.


  1. Interesting points but surely if N Korea's food problems were geographical then S. Korea would share them; which is most decidedly not the case. Unfortunately, most N. Koreans are hungry because of their political system.

    Although Africa is home to too many of the worlds malnourished people, many African populations are well fed, and the overall situation, as I am sure you know far better than me, is very complex.

    Travelling in Asia recently brought home to me quite clearly that some people consuming too many calories does mean less resources for the rest of the world. 'Selling' non-consumerism in the west is a hard job!

  2. A vast amount of our diets bares little relation to the foods the human animal has evolved to eat over millions of years. Refined sugar is thrown into even many savoury foods, and has only been part of mainstream generations for a few generations. Preservatives, artificial sweeteners, additives have been around for a few decades at most, some have arrived in the last few years.

    Throw in 200 times the levels of EMFs that existed in pre-industrial times, traffic pollution and household carcinogens and no wonder we're facing a health crisis.

    The government maintains we need to work until the grave as we're all living longer but the number of people that have severe illness in middle age is growing fast. Hearing that a 40 or 50 something at work or an extended family member has cancer is no longer shocking.

    Outside of the killer diseases people suffer from a wide range of 'lack of vitality' illnesses, which can be mildly or severely debilitating. IBS, Chronic Fatigue, post-viral syndrome. Medicine usually likes to label those presenting extreme fatigue, dizzy spells, digestive problems, skin rashes, pallor as having neurotic illness when many are simply symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning (mercury dental fillings, traffic and industrial pollution, food supply) or severe yeast overgrowth (from being over-prescribed antibiotics or having a lowered immunity from poor diet). It's curious that illnesses of what are most likely general toxicity are dubbed 'all in the mind'. Is it because by writing them off as all in the mind they present no challenge to the growth of industrialism?

    Have you read Samuel Epstein's book The Politics Of Cancer, which describes how the cancer industry has been historically antagonistic towards cancer prevention? The science of cancer prevention, which identifies environmental causes of cancer, often yields little in the way of 'product' compared to the science of patching up cancer victims.

  3. I recently moved to Texas from Canada and find the price of fresh food out of alignment with salaries / cost of living. Obesity in lower economic classes here seems to be related to a number of factors including: lack of education, distance of grocery stores, and the expense of fresh produce/ meat. My local grocery store for example has very little organic food and healthy choices are way more expensive than their over-processed and over packaged counterparts.

    It seems to me it would be quite plausible or likely that here in Texas (which I keep being told is handling the current U.S. economic downturn better than many states) a person could be both obese and malnourished at the same time.