A thin solution to a big problem

The globe is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, and the UK is one of the worst affected. Yet the government has responded by emphasising personal responsibility, ignoring the wider impact of the neoliberal economic system.
Amanda Conroy
20 October 2011

The globe is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, and the UK is one of the worst affected. Yet the government has responded by emphasising personal responsibility, ignoring the wider impact of the neoliberal economic system.

Last week, the government released its new ‘strategy’ to combat obesity, which was immediately met with criticism from food and nutrition activists and experts. Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and food advocate, has called it “worthless, regurgitated, patronising rubbish". The President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that the government’s plan to cut 5 billion calories from the public diet "may grab headlines but is actually peanuts – 16 dry-roasted peanuts per person, per day, to be precise", since “the plan has no clear measures on how the food and drink industry will be made to be more responsible in their aggressive marketing of unhealthy food."


Can cutting a few calories each really save us?

It should first be noted that the Government’s plan is not a coherent strategy - it is, in Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s words - a “national ambition”. Thus we should, perhaps, not be surprised if it is vague, unfocused and unhelpful. "Simply telling people what they already know – that they need to eat less and move more – is a complete cop-out”, says Jamie Oliver.

The plan centres around encouraging local councils to invest in cycling schemes and parks to encourage increased physical activity, asking the food and beverage industry to voluntarily cut down on their calorie, fat and salt content and change packaging labels to communicate nutritional information more clearly, and encouraging individuals to cut calories and get more physical exercise.

Practitioners have found these prescriptions inadequate. "Suggesting that children in particular can be 'nudged' into making healthy choices” says Terence Stephenson, “especially when faced with a food landscape which is persuading them to do the precise opposite, suggests this would be best described as a call to inaction”. In particular, the plan has been criticized for its over-emphasis on personal and corporate ‘responsibility’. The government’s ‘strategy’ is to combat the obesity epidemic, not by regulations, but by creating an environment that would allow individuals to make healthier choices. In doing so, however, they are ignoring larger structural constraints on proper diet and exercise. "It is not simply a question of personal responsibility”, says Professor Philip James of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. “There is an environmental problem in terms of the food system we have."

Such a thin engagement with the politics of food ignores the larger socio-economic structural constraints on healthy eating, and one that we cannot afford given the severity of the obesity epidemic. According to Professor Robert Paarlberg, an expert in food policy, 1.6 billion people worldwide are overweight, which means there are currently twice as many people are overweight than are underfed. The UK is only one of seven countries in which more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese (in 18 countries half of the population is overweight or obese). Obesity represents a significant public health crisis: it is linked to the increasing prevalence of high blood pressure and cholesterol and type 2 diabetes (a report issued in 2000 estimated that one third of men and two fifths of women would in the US would develop diabetes). As Professor Elspeth Probyn writes, “There is something seriously wrong with an analysis that leaves untouched the socioeconomic structures that are producing ever larger bodies. What of the immense changes in global flows of capital and agribusiness, which are putting millions out of traditional work and forcing them into cities? What of the cheap and bad products that seemingly everyone in the world now eats?”

Neo-liberal economic governance reifies market logic guided by the responsibilization of consumption. Profits are made by cutting wages while simultaneously increasing production consumer demand. Julie Guthman, an expert in the politics of food, agriculture, and obesity, in an interview with Scott Stoneman, states that: “Many of the changes in the food system that are associated with obesogeneity can easily be traced back to the political economy of neoliberalism”.

The growth of agribusiness and factory farming has intensified farm production and driven food costs down. Food is 50% cheaper now (in relative terms) than it was at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Great. But real wages have declined as well. “Cheap food”, says Guthman, “has come to substitute for income”. And, as is to be suspected, caloric intake has increased.

At the same time, people are working longer hours than ever before, longer than at any other point in human history (except, perhaps, during the period after the Industrial Revolution and before trade unionism). Even the relatively recent past contained greater leisure time; Henry Ford was a proponent of generous leisure time for his workers - after all, they needed to have enough time to buy the goods they produced. With the white-collarization of Western economies, writes Paarlberg “physical labors both on the farm and in the factory have been replaced by sedentary white-collar work behind a desk in the office.”

Is it any coincidence that the UK has the highest rates of obesity and the longest work week in Europe? UK workers also get less annual leave than most Europeans. In Aviva’s 2011 Health of the Workplace report, they found that “employees are working longer hours than before the recession” and that “employee health is suffering a result - many people are feeling stressed, tired and eating an unhealthy diet”. According to the report, since the global financial crisis:

  • 30% of employees are working longer hours

  • Employees work an average 1.5 hours extra a day.

  • 42% of employees work up to 3 hours extra a day

  • 63% work additional hours because they have too much work to do

  • 30% of British employees skip lunch breaks because of over-work.

In a news release issued 18 August, Aviva stated that: “Health and eating well suffer when workloads are high. As a result of longer working hours, nearly 15% of employees believe their health is affected because they are eating unhealthily at work.”

At the same time work is also keeping employees from exercising. Aviva found that, while 48% of respondents exercised at least once or twice per week:

“Work is the main barrier – or excuse – used for not doing more. Nearly one in five employees (18%) say that they try to exercise but work comes first and 11% say that they used to do much more exercise but now they’re too busy with work. Just 5% of employees feel that they do more exercise now than in previous years.”

A 2007 report by the Government Office for Science was doubtful that increased access to parks or leisure facilities would necessarily result in increased levels of activity for those who do not already exercise regularly. People, the report suggested, are not likely to start exercising if they are not embedded in a space which promotes it. Those that can access a healthy lifestyle are those that can pay for it; several studies in the report found a correlation between poverty and low levels of leisure-time physical activity. We may value exercise but we certainly don’t value the leisure time we need to do it.

The obesity epidemic is the manifestation par excellence of a neo-liberal economic system that is propelled by the consumption of cheap...well, anything really. The economy runs on cheap goods – including food products - made by cheap labour. The declining wages of those able to consume at all is propped up by cheap, unhealthy food. “Fast food”, says Guthman, “becomes a doubly good fix for capitalism; not only does it involve the super-exploitation of the labor force, but it also provides an outlet for surplus food. Insofar as this surplus manifests in more body mass, the contradiction is (temporarily) resolved in the body”.

And, with longer working hours and less time for leisure, it generally stays there. 

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