Why language is important

Can we laugh at this quote a quick moment?

Some experts say these new findings raise questions about the effectiveness of efforts to combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods. Despite campaigns to get Americans to exercise more and eat healthier foods, obesity rates have not budged over the past decade, according to recently released federal data.

The language of the so-called obesity epidemic has become so unquestioningly ingrained in journalistic circles that the writer of this article can’t see the contradiction between an obesity rate that hasn’t ‘budged over the past decade,’ and stating in the previous sentence that we’re in an ‘obesity epidemic.’

George, you old bastard, you’ve won this round. Now please stop haunting us with your lessons about propaganda. It’s getting eerie to see doublespeak in the news as a matter of course rather than a soon-to-be-retracted error, or a sloppy intern-level mistake.

The article from which the quote is pulled is worth a read: Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity

It’s a report on the findings of a study that conclude there’s no relationship between poor urban neighborhoods and lack of access to ‘healthy’ foods, and then concludes that increased levels of obesity in poor urban neighborhoods mustn’t be connected to what people were eating. Well, no kidding; it’s been known for a while that fat people in general don’t eat differently than thinner people in general. So blaming relative fatness on the assumption that fatness is related to what poorer people eat compared to what richer people eat doesn’t make sense in the context of what we know about how fatter and thinner people eat, in general. Still, the food desert argument has been used to stigmatize poorer fat people under the guise of concerned progressivism, especially on sites like Jezebel, for a long time. It probably has its root in some book by Pollan or one of those folks — I wouldn’t know, I don’t read that stuff.

10,000 Big Liberty points to anyone who guesses the next trend in weight-control-by-nannying via the vaunted elites (of both the governmental and corporate variety) of our respective societies. Tax breaks for weight loss surgery and fat camps for the kids? ‘Sin’ taxes on sugar and carbs (since everyone’s nuts about Paleo these days)? Required ‘extra’ PE or after-school PE/sports for kids who ‘fail’ on their BMI ‘report cards’? (sorry for all the single quotes, but I can’t stand talking in the bastardized language of the bigoted panic-drivers)

EDIT: withoutscene pointed out to me on Twitter that the writer of the article is no other than Gina Kolata of Rethinking Thin fame. Rethinking Thin got me to quit dieting. About six months after I read it I stumbled across the fat acceptance movement. I can’t believe I didn’t notice she wrote it. Chalk it up to cynicism, but I don’t even check author names of articles anymore — I expect them all to be anti-fat biased, no matter their credentials.

6 comments on “Why language is important

  1. These studies also increase the argument that fat makes people poor — and not the other way around. Could it be that fat people experience prejudice?

    • bigliberty says:

      Lonie, I think this study does beg the question of why there’s a correlation between fatter and relatively poorer urban communities. If it’s not because of the quality of food they eat (something I never believed), then the other options seems to be (please add more if I’m missing any):

      1. The composition of the poorer urban communities being studied are people who have a greater genetic propensity to be fatter than relatively richer communities;
      2. There’s discrimination in employment and other opportunities;
      3. Poorer urban communities are more likely to experience hunger, which switches on the famine response, making children in these communities more likely to hang on to food they do get to eat.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I get so sick to death of people blaming the existence of poor urban fat people with “crappy” processed food. I understand that, theoretically, processed food consumption is linked with disease, but the relationship is NOT causal. Too many other factors exist that make the correlation meaningless. Just because it costs less and is made in a factory does not, de facto, make it inferior to more expensive, home-cooked food. There is NO plausible logical or scientific reason why food that is otherwise identical is magically less nutritious because it is “synthetic.” Also, if there really were a problem with excessive consumption of malnutritious food, why are we not seeing a concomitant rise in nutritional deficiencies? Food either has nutrients or it doesn’t. and without an epidemic of nutritional deficiency, I have to assume that processed foods are doing the job they’re supposed to di, which is to feed. Enough with the woo woo about magical health foods.

    It’s not up to me to prove that processed food isn’t bad. They made the claim that it was killing us. THEY need to substantiate it.

    Personally, I think it’s a combination of anti-corporatism, fear of modern life, a fetish with everything “natural,” and in many cases, an ignorance of science that leads so many people to have these beliefs.

    That’s another thing I don’t get. The idea that we were being killed by our modern foods was predicated on the idea that there was a deadly obesity epidemic that caused diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Well, if obesity isn’t deadly, if there is no epidemic of obesity, and if so-called lifestyle diseases are actually genetic, then there is no epidemic of lifestyle diseases on the horizon either. Once those premises go out the window, the idea that modern food and corporations are killing as loses its whole basis. Yeah, I know corporations often don’t do the right thing. I never said that all processed foods or food processing methods were top-tier. I just am saying that being processed does not, in itself, make food inferior.

    Oh, and by the way, I don’t think there is an epidemic of “inactivity” either. How can we be in the midst of an opdemic, diet, and exercise epi-panic where kids are exercised into the ground and at the same time have an epidemic of underactive kids? Does not compute. At all.

    Sorry this was way too long, but thank you do much for combating the liberal bias and standing against healthism. You rock!

  3. Trying for BigLiberty Points here:

    I predict that fat activists and healthists will get together and launch a kinder, gentler healthism program in which we all get free WIC vouchers for farmers markets, millions of dollars in taxpayer money devoted to new gyms, hours of PE (for children of ALL sizes, ya know), informational packets, overpriced organic lunches, etc. that could have been spent on infrastructure, businesses, and initiatives that actually raise the status of poor people, rather than make them totally dependent on government handouts. I was on public assistance. I was dependent on the charity of others, and I don’t want vouchers. I want an education and a job.

    You know what else? If we took MY advice and raised the status of poor people rather than the price of their gorcery bill, all their health problems would magically go away, even if they continue to eat Velveeta and Spam for the rest of their lives.

  4. I applaud your nerve with this blog. I’ve been bopping around through it, and I admire the courage it takes to challenge the status quo. But I have to constructively disagree with you.
    I spent the better part of my life overweight. On my 5-6 frame, I carried about 220 lbs. And while its impact on my health might be debatable, its impact on my quality of life was not. I felt tired all the time. My cholesterol and triglycerides were elevated (according to my annual bloodwork). I was 30, and my knee hurt when I walked upstairs, and even MORE when I walked downstairs. Even worse, I got short of breath on stairs, and I had three flights to walk up and down everyday at work. I decided I was going to make some changes, and I began losing weight.
    I began reducing how much carb-based food I consumed. And I took a hard look in the mirror, acknowledging that I was consuming more than my body needed. So I gradually began walking away from foods I wanted but did not technically need. At the same time, I started walking and lifting weights.
    My goal was not actually to get thin. My goal was to become healthy and strong. I wanted muscles to put the boys to shame. I’m not a “girly girl,” and I work at a school for troubled middle school kids. I frequently deal with students who try to be physically intimidating. More than anything, I wanted a body that said not “Come Fuck Me” but rather “Don’t Fuck With Me.” So I started out small, but over the last 36 months, I’ve achieved my goal. I also lost 60 lbs in the bargain.
    I support your endeavor to put a stop to what you call size-ism. As someone who went through high school with a skinny sister and endured a lot of fat-hate, I have no tolerance for individuals who make assumptions about others on the basis of appearance. However, I can’t entirely support your argument and claims that weight is largely out of our control. Diet and exercise DO make a difference. You may have found a lot of “scientific evidence” to support your arguments, but consider this: Even research writing is rhetorical. Scienctific studies typically find what they want to find. My own experience (possibly unique, but I really doubt it) indicates that I can take control of my body’s makeup and, if I wish to do so, can change it. I wanted to be strong, and I got there by changing what I put into my body and how I move my body. I did not do this because of self-hatred or any internalized societal fat hate but rather because I was simply sick to death of having sore knees. I cannot entirely condone an “it’s not our fault” mindset.
    All that being said, I do admire your courage. The world is full of assholes, and people of size are too often on the receiving end of outrageously hurtful comments. Recognition of difference almost always comes with a value judgement. A person should never have their worth determined by their appearance.

    • bigliberty says:

      Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment, especially as it fits so well in the context of the post on which you commented.

      I’m a scientist, so although I’m aware of how studies can be biased or bad, I don’t agree that scientific studies aren’t useful indicators when well done. Like most things, science studies (especially health studies that tend to get big press) need to be read with a skeptical eye. Also note that there are plenty of studies which say significant weight loss is possible on X diet, but they all tend to have the same characteristics: the study rarely goes longer than 2 – 4 years, it doesn’t count drop-outs, better health numbers are conflated with weight lost instead of greater fitness, and the authors tend to have a financial interest in a weight loss pill, therapy, or device/surgery.

      That being said, I’m glad you’re feeling better. Lots of people feel better on weight loss diets (WLDs). Lots of people feel sicker on WLDs. I was one of the latter. But one sparrow doesn’t make a summer: my story and your story, while useful on an individual level, aren’t useful on a statistical level. That is, I can’t say that because I felt sicker when I lost weight others will too, and you can’t say because you felt better after losing weight others will, too. That’s what studies are for: to look for treatments that can be applied to the vast majority of those who seek them, with the same or similar results. Unfortunately, the science on WLDs is that losing a significant amount of weight tends to put the metabolism into famine mode: obsession with high-energy foods (or forbidden foods), binge/purge behavior (the purging might be fasting or overexercise), and metabolic rate slowing so that in order to keep losing weight one must eat less and less.

      After I stopped dieting I gained a lot of weight. For a while I felt clumsy and uncomfortable, had weird pains here and there, and felt more out of shape. I bought an elliptical, worked out moderately 3 – 4 times a week, and felt back to my old self again after a month or two. No significant weight loss.

      Since I’m not one for anecdotal evidence (except to provide black swans), I’ll mention that my story extends to studies done on people who have increased their exercise and varied their diet: their numbers improve and they feel better, but they lose a very little weight, if any at all.

      Unfortunately for dieters, in general a significant weight loss is not statistically sustainable in the long term. If you’re interested in the research please click on my “Truth About Fat” page.

      Also, I’d just like to mention that though you may not intend it, coming in to tell your weight loss story is itself a value judgment. You judge that people like me and my readers haven’t been through our share of WLDs or know others who have (we are ignorant); that we haven’t listened to the ‘best argument’ from the other side (we are biased); and that we aren’t aware of things like how bias can present itself in health studies (we are stupid). I’m glad you’ve been enjoying my blog, but perhaps it’s my fault you did not seem to grasp these most basic points, which are laid out in many posts over the four years I’ve been writing this thing.

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