“Weighing In” on obesity

Julie Guthman came to Santa Monica College Thursday to speak about the “obesity epidemic,” challenging the many widely held perceptions about the causes and consequences of obesity. A social science professor at University of California, Santa Cruz and an award-winning author, Guthman is also a researcher  of various social movements that seek to change the way food is produced, distributed and consumed.

During her lecture, Guthman focused on a chapter of her new book, “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.”

According to audience reactions at the lecture, most people tend to assume that obesity is the result of eating excess calories and fat and not exercising enough. But Guthman said that poor diet and lack of exercise are not the only causes of obesity, which can result from many factors, including food availability and physical environment.

“If accessibility to healthy food choices is limited, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables may be curtailed,” Guthman said.

She called such environments “obesogenic,” and characterized them as places where it is easier to access inexpensive, fattening foods than it is to purchase healthy foods. For example, “food deserts” typically have only convenience stores—not supermarkets—where locals can buy food.

Guthman said that there are many other factors, aside from calories, that affect body weight. As examples, she criticized the politics of food production and the increasing popularity of organic foods.

“Organic is just a way of producing food; they use more of a biological pest control and treat the soil differently,” Guthman said.

According to Guthman, although organic food is often considered a solution that could target the problem of obesity, it digs a gap between people who have the desire and the means to address the issue and those who do not.

Guthman said she believes it is a poor theory of change because these organic alternatives cost more, thus creating a social injustice.

“The way organic food works as a way to regulate the food supply is, growers and producers were willing to abide by the organic standards, [they] get rewarded with the certification of being organic, so then they can charge consumers more,” Guthman said.

While such local, organic and farm-fresh food may be grown in more ecologically sustainable ways, this approach can also reinforce class and race inequalities, and neglect other possible explanations for the rise in obesity, including environmental toxins, according to Guthman.

“The strong food movement shooting up all around us really focuses on developing these possible alternatives that will encourage people to eat the good stuff, but it’s not challenging the kind of system that is releasing the kind of chemicals into the air,” Guthman said.

According to Guthman, it is important to consider the many unregulated substances and chemicals used in the making and storing of the food supply, including pest-control chemicals and plastic containers for food and water. Guthman also cited the presence of chemicals such as bisphenol-a, often found in pizza boxes, and plant-based processed foods such as soy, as disruptive agents that can predispose people to obesity.

According to Guthman, teaching children how to eat better and inciting people to eat more fruits and vegetables is not enough to challenge current food problems such as agricultural chemicals that affect human bodies. She illustrated this idea by showing images of an overweight newborn baby and a young child chewing on a plastic toy to portray the omnipresence of chemicals.

Guthman concluded by saying that many of the potential solutions to the “obesity epidemic” carry the possible risk of worsening economic equalities for obese people. She said that she wants consumers to be aware of the industrial food processes that have become increasingly present in recent years in order to bring more awareness to the growing problem.