In their ongoing effort to dictate Americans’ food preferences, nutrition activists have named many culprits of the so-called obesity crisis. Until recently, most of their targets have been "junk" or "fast" foods (and often their suppliers). But a troubling pattern has started to emerge among some anti-fat campaigners. Under the guise of encouraging personal responsibility, some food police are now turning against the obese themselves.
The rationale behind the new bullying strategy is simple: Encourage the obese to lose weight by making fatness a shameful, unacceptable stigma. But merely painting the obese as criminals instead of victims will not encourage healthier lifestyles. What it will encourage is more heavy-handed government action.
Consider a few of these recent examples:
In October 2008, an English newspaper reported that “at least seven kids were taken from their parents last year for being too fat.”
Earlier this year, an Australian “obesity expert” argued in a medical journal that doctors should be required to report a child’s obesity to authorities, since obesity is tantamount to child abuse.
David Rogers, a spokesman for Britain’s Local Government Association, argued last year that “parents who allow their children to eat too much could be as guilty of neglect as those who did not feed their children at all.”
After witnessing a family eating a large meal in a restaurant, one columnist held that what he “saw should be categorized as child abuse.”
One newspaper editor, after calling obesity “aesthetically disgusting,” wrote, “If it were up to me, being fat would be made as socially unacceptable as smoking.”
Obesity is becoming such a cultural “offense” that sometimes actual crimes are committed in the name of fighting obesity. Earlier this year, for example, there was a deeply disturbing report that a “father chained his daughter to her bed because he thought she was overweight.”
Councils in Scotland suggest that some obese people may be barred from adopting children because of their weight. This report comes after news that a British couple was turned down from adopting a child purely because the would-be father exceeded certain weight limits on the arbitrary Body Mass Index.
From a scientific standpoint, this stigmatization strategy is deeply misguided. Obesity is the result of personal decisions which result in more calories in (through food) than calories out (through physical activity). Research indicates that it’s physical inactivity, rather than individual foods, that is associated with rising obesity rates.
But it’s hard to believe that these kinds of efforts are aimed at encouraging weight loss. Like the emotional appeals to terrorism and the Black Death plague (which wiped out a third of Europe in the 14th century), they will be much more effective at creating a public call for more regulation. This is how nutrition zealots can quickly move from demonizing trans fats and calling for menu labeling to eyeing, for example, a common (and safe) ingredient like high fructose corn syrup.
Obesity may be a useful method for convincing people to accept far-reaching government regulations. But if the 11 million Americans suffering from eating disorders are any indication, it could be a disastrous approach to improving public health.