Flipping through the NY Times Magazine one Sunday, I came across this piece by Judith Warner: Junking Junk Food – Why the war on obesity isn’t just about curbing our appetites (New York Times Magazine, 11.28.10). The title caught my attention. I thought for sure I was about to read a piece that expanded the discourse on obesity – it wouldn’t all be about individual responsibility, in other words; perhaps she’d talk about our nation’s food policies.
But no luck there. The piece deconstructs whether the government can or can’t change Americans’ “food habits,” with not a single mention of food policy or other public dimensions of this issue (e.g., school lunch programs and meal content, physical education requirements in schools, any number of issues related to our community environments from public transportation, parks, walkable developments, etc.).
Instead, Warner argues that for government to have a successful role in regulating what and how much Americans consume, government must change our psychological constructions of and emotional attachments to food.
To support this argument, she quotes David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, who claims that it was NOT laws and regulations, but a shift in cultural attitudes that led Americans to quit smoking. Cigarettes stopped being portrayed, he says, as cool, and came to be seen as terribly addictive products.
Well, yes, but what were the factors that contributed to that shift? It wasn’t a generationally induced “a-ha!” moment that shifted the portrayal from cool to uncool.
A number of systemic, public factors contributed to this shift in attitudes: growing scientific consensus about health consequences; revelations that big tobacco companies were spending billions researching how to keep Americans addicted and marketing what they knew to be harmful products – all of which opened the door for government regulation of tobacco.
Unfortunate that in an article about government’s role in contributing to the health of Americans, none of this was mentioned. Tobacco might then have been a far more apt analogy for the Junk Food question. Another lesson at how hard it is to wrestle the obesity debate away from episodic stories and toward thematic – to show the systems and structures and policies that affect nutrition and health.
For advocates who would like resources on how to tell better stories about food and community health, please see our interactive, sit-at-your-desk eWorkshop, titled “Location, location, location: Framing food and fitness as a community health issue”
The full slate of research reports and framing recommendations can be found here