The Obligation to Fight Obesity

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What if food rights came with food duties?

By James McWilliams

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(Photo: Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

Despite a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that childhood obesity was in decline, the numbers — when properly interpreted (and supplemented with more recent research) — confirm the opposite. As they have for decades, children between the ages of two and 19 are, in fact, becoming overweight or obese at a steadily increasing rate.

Today, 33.4 percent of kids are considered overweight, with 17.4 percent of them qualifying as obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 35 or more) or severely obese (a BMI over 40). To put these measurements in perspective, a healthy person who is 5'9" and 150 pounds will have a BMI of around 22.

These numbers intersect with an especially compelling sociological observation: As childhood obesity becomes commonplace, parents are increasingly unable to recognize the condition in their children. Writing in Scientific American, Jane Ogden explained that, “as populations get fatter, the new normal has become overweight and therefore invisible.”

Financially strapped and stressed, the struggling consumer makes decisions according to the persuasive dictates of scarcity rather than the long-term nutritional consequences.

The implications of this oversight — one that has gotten a lot of media attention — seem obvious. If parents can’t even recognize, much less acknowledge, the problem of obesity in their own homes, how can we expect public-health initiatives to manage the obesity epidemic?

In light of this question, it seems sensible to address how experts might counsel parents to recognize signs of obesity in their expanding progeny. But that would assume (too easily) that obesity is an epidemic that will be solved through rational assessments of behavioral choice. All we need to do, according to this logic, is identify the problem, highlight the proper choices, and act accordingly.

But it may not be so simple.

Granted, this “listen to the facts” approach sometimes works. We all know someone who has tapped herculean inner strength to re-gain power over his eating habits, his body, and his life. Very recently, in fact, I ran into an old friend who, having radically altered his diet a year ago, dropped 80 pounds and is happier than he’s ever been. But, inspiring as it is, this is an outlier narrative.

The reason has to do with an issue that’s rarely acknowledged in the urgent and ongoing discussion over obesity: Our decisions are framed by inherited systems of thought so entrenched in our collective psyche and history that they trump the power of personal agency.

To cite an example (which I’ve written about before), a generalized feeling of scarcity will invariably drive consumers to make the seemingly rational choice to obtain cheap, calorically dense food (i.e., fast food) while ignoring the cumulative consequences of that (ultimately very bad) decision. Financially strapped and stressed, the struggling consumer makes decisions according to the persuasive dictates of scarcity rather than the long-term nutritional consequences. This choice — one that privileged foodies are quick to condemn — reminds us that obesity may be more about socio-economic context than personal choice.

While the scarcity example helps explain the dietary habits of the economically disadvantaged, other factors are even more influential — and more pervasive — in shaping food choices for the rest of us. Consider the impact of the most powerful idea to emerge from the age of enlightenment: rights. What could the prevailing moral and political understanding of rights possibly have to teach us about obesity?

I’d say a lot. The idea of human rights has historically sparked enlightened revolutions that have empowered subjects who otherwise would have remained disenfranchised. This is all for the good. But, as the discourse on rights has charged into the modern era, it has outpaced its equally important and necessary counterpart — duties. Today, as a result, we live in a culture where the talk of rights runs rampant, having broken free from the leash of duty, to which it was once closely tethered.

Consumers insist that we have a fundamental right to eat whatever we want in whatever quantity we can afford. And so we do, under the implied justification that it’s our right to do so. Which is a big reason why we’re so overweight.

Consumers thus easily — maybe too easily — articulate our rights to virtually everything we desire without explaining, much less adhering to, corresponding duties anchoring our rights to the obligations that make them possible. In a recent Boston Reviewpiece, Samuel Moyn addressed this concern, writing, “Unfortunately, while there has been great interest in the history of rights, no one has attempted to write the history of duties.” So, conveniently, we’ve generally ignored them.

The result has been an emphasis on rights that has careened into a self-absorbed, even solipsistic, indulgence of consumer freedom. This is especially true when it comes to what we eat. Consumers insist that we have a fundamental right to eat whatever we want in whatever quantity we can afford. And so we do, under the implied justification that it’s our right to do so. Which is a big reason why we’re so overweight.

(Interestingly, this right-to-eat-whatever ideology — freed from the burden of corresponding obligation — doesn’t prevail in that other arena of physical intimacy — sex — which is, comparatively speaking, somewhat tamed by duties to monogamy, family, and general avoidance of absolute sybaritic chaos.)

It’s hard not to wonder: What would “food choice” look like if, over the centuries, duties had kept pace with rights? It hardly seems unreasonable to propose that our dietary decisions, bound as they are to health-care costs that we all shoulder, should come with a duty to be healthy. Likewise, the proposition that our right to food should be balanced by a duty to treat animals, the environment, and agricultural laborers well only seems fair. And, in general, shouldn’t our right to culinary excess be checked by a duty to moderation? None of these ideas strike me as any different than saying that if I have a right to own a gun I have duty to practice gun safety.

As sensible as these obligations sound, the fact is that the culture in which we now consume — and eat — is a culture that values rights at the expense of obligations. It is, admittedly, a very broad context within which to analyze the obesity epidemic. But it’s also a necessary one in that it reminds us that, if we ever hope to solve a crisis of this magnitude, it will not do to merely address specific behavioral habits — such as recognizing obesity in our kids. We’ll also have to alter the course of history, and the expected role that concerned citizens are obligated to play in it.

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