Is obesity a biopolitical symptom of corporations putting profit over health, and if so, what are the causes and effects?
The obesity dilemma in neoliberal societies obsessed with morals and calories
Obesity is one of the major health concerns plaguing the modern world. But how did this become an epidemic, and what are its foundations? This dissertation contributes to the discussion as to why there is more behind the conventional theories surrounding food politics and obesity. Is obesity a biopolitical symptom of corporations putting profit over health, and if so, what are the causes and effects? How are morals and calories allowing them to hide? This paper will look through the lens of Michel Foucault and his concepts within biopolitics, in which to frame the political nature behind obesity. This research will address why directing blame onto the obese is based on the neoliberal ideas of governing oneself, and how these ingrained concepts are woven through western societies, creating an escape route for privatized institutions that fail to put nutrition first. This discussion argues that it is exactly these embedded forms of bottom-up biopolitical control that keep people fat, funding a multi-billion-dollar diet industry. This essay will explore through culinary capital, social ecology, morals, the diet industry, and the gut to further understand and recognize some of the underlying chain of events behind this complex disease.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, within the past generation, obesity rates have doubled. 33% of the world’s population is obese. (Jayasinghe, 2016) Obesity is a central public health problem, and it shows us that there is visual validity in the mistrust within a corrupt food system that is destroying people’s health. This discussion aims to show that the causes are not the biological ‘norms’ assumed. Is obesity a biopolitical symptom of food corporations putting profit over health, and if so, what are the causes and effects? How are these embedded moral concepts woven through western societies, creating veiled marketing escape routes for privatized institutions? This discussion argues that it is exactly these ingrained forms of bottom-up biopolitical control that keep people fat, funding a multi-billion-dollar diet industry. This research will demonstrate how obesity is a symbol of a warped political system, stemming from neoliberal seeds, in which the abuse of the biopolitical calorie by private corporations have negatively transformed our bodies. The discussion sets out to add to what we already know about these claims, and what data, concepts, and theories can be linked together to form new conclusions for change. The aim of this research is to expose the biopolitical nature of obesity and to frame the research with Foucauldian concepts to find truths.
The literature review of this dissertation thoroughly explored the work of Foucault, (Foucault, 11 January 1978, 2004) (Foucault, 28 March 1979, 2004) (Foucault, 31 January 1979, 2004) (Foucault, 31 January 1979, 2008) (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, 1973) (Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 3 The Care of the Self, 1986) (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 1978) (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2 The Use of Pleasure, 1984), in which was a useful tool kit to map out and link the vast subject of biopolitics and obesity. Food politics sources were also extensive, but this research focused on a select few that best fit into Foucauldian concepts and obesity (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003) (Nestle, Unsavory Truth, 2018) (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020) (Spector, The Diet Myth , 2015) (Steel, Sitopia, 2020) (Wolf, 2007) (Simon, 2006) (Shannon, March 2013) (Rebrovik, 2015). The diet Industry, another very broad area, focused on scholars that were based around biopolitics in nature (Naccarato, 2012) (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013) (Shapin, 2003) (Pollan, 2008). Gut health is also a key component of this analysis in order to demonstrate the biological effects of obesity. In this connection, many journals and studies were useful, but the book “The Gut-Immune Connection” proved to be the one of the most inspiring (Mayer, 2021) (Vinke, 2019) (Wang, 2021) (Zhang, 2015) (Dr. van Tulleken, 2021).
First, this essay will build the discussion with a brief background of food Industrialization and the modern food regime in order to politically frame how the food corporations managed to gain so much control over the state. Through the discussion of biopolitics and culinary capital, it will lead to the conclusion as to why the faith in government to protect the population’s health has been so abused. Next, the paper will give an analysis of the power of lobbyists and how they manipulate the state for the corporations that hire them. To support this, the corn crop will be highlighted as an example of such influence, showing the oppressive power the corporations have over the agricultural industry and society at large.
In addition, this research will look at food deserts and how obesity is also about economic identity and the lack of freedom to choose what to eat based on social ecology, the ‘invisible hand’ of the government, and knowledge-power.
This essay will then discuss the psychology of fat-shaming and the moral system behind it. Western societies try to explain obesity as a moral disease that can be cured through neoliberal tracking systems, such as calories, exercise, life management skills (diets), and responsible consumer food choices. But this discussion argues that it is exactly these embedded forms of bottom-up biopolitical control that keep people fat, funding the multi-billion-dollar diet industry.
Finally, by looking through the perspectives of network science, this paper will discuss how the biological makeup of our crops and soil are a mirror to our well-being. This research will conclude by looking at the damaging effects on our gut health and microbiome from consuming industrial food distributed by food corporations, confirming why it is proving to be a primary cause of obesity.
CHAPTER 1. CULINARY CAPITAL AND BIOPOLITICS
In the beginning of the 20th century, food culture began developing into a ‘material instrument of statecraft.’ (Cullather, 2007, p. 338) The calorie became a powerful measure of not only the energy within food, but also a way for governments to analyze national resources and how they fed their populations. This enabled food boundaries, social order, and the questioning of traditional diets. Trust within science and governments allowed them to tell populations what to eat, allowing for the discovery and exercise of the calorie’s biopower. This enabled dieticians to market their scientific advice not just to an individual, but to a government sponsored marketing campaign that could reach populations. Statistical information became a key player in how the government could be capable of controlling the public in terms of consumption and the production of food. This also entailed wages, labor, and the general health of the nation to ensure that the workers would be able-bodied and ready to produce. Poverty in 1920s America, for example, represented a nation of mouths to feed and “an open frontier of the market without limits.” (Cullather, 2007, p. 351). Herbert Hoover, then president of the United States, confirmed, “There are continents of human welfare of which we have penetrated only the coastal plain.” (Cullather, 2007, p. 352)
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and political activist, later coined this as ‘biopolitics’, in which he links the technological (or, in this circumstance, the calorie) and the capitalistic power of the government to control and sustain the human body, using knowledge-power to govern and transform human existence. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 1978) (Lavin, 2009) Another important concept for Foucault was the idea of the ‘economic man’, first coined by Adam Smith, which is essentially the application of economic analysis onto human behavior, in which is a key factor in American neo-liberalism. This theory also applies from the other side, in that it relates to the consumer buying power and his awareness that he must keep his body in good condition — i.e., work longer hours, preform at peak levels, fit the societal ‘norm’ of good health, etc. He is also someone who, “is eminently governable and accepts reality — a correlate of the government which will act on the environment and change its variables.” (Foucault, 28 March 1979, 2004, pp. 268-279) In this way, corporations win from both sides. This is the beginning of how large food businesses collaborated with governmental regulations to control what we eat. Moreover, Foucault says, describing Adam Smith’s analysis, “Each only thinks of his own gain and, in the end, the whole industry benefits. People only think of their own gain and do not think about the benefit of everyone…it is not always the worse for society that the end of benefiting all does not enter into the merchants’ concerns.” (Foucault, 28 March 1979, 2004, p. 279) People essentially run the food economy by their egoistic choices. This is the double-edged sword of economics, in which applies to industrial food being consumed, which is eaten to make you stronger and healthier (great selling points) but then inevitably makes you fat and sick, so you must diet, take vitamins and medicines, and get healthy again. Borrowing a phrase from Adam Smith, Foucault calls this the ‘invisible hand’, in which its success cannot really be measured, yet plays an enormous role in the mechanics of the neoliberal society and the beginning of the extreme success of industrialization. Furthermore, this invisibility connects everything, but still allows each person to choose what to consume on their own accord in order to hide it. “Invisibility is indispensable…the world of the economy must be and can only be obscure to the sovereign.” (Foucault, 28 March 1979, 2004, p. 280) Democratic people can choose what to eat, but they cannot know the power structure behind this invisible ‘nudge’ to consume certain products or pick a certain diet and lifestyle.
Industrialization empowered the second food regime, as agriculture became an important and dominant sector. Food was no longer about eating, but manufacturing that needed to be sold. Advertising, market research, and nutritional science linked itself wholeheartedly to the economy. Populations and states became biopolitical, and a means to make money by filling stomachs. “After WW2, the U.S. sought to find new markets for its ever-increasing wheat surpluses, which sought cheap food to facilitate industrialization.” (Friedmann, 2008, p. 104) This surplus was then forced onto other nations through aid, markets, and economics revolving around the power of the dollar. This is where Foucault’s ‘jurisdiction of price’ emerges, where the price of food is no longer the ‘truth’, but a price based on policies made by the government to corporations and embedded through various participating industries (Foucault, 31 January 1979, 2008). This new liberal thinking was a form of power to oppress the farmers and the food system. Therefore, this was the true beginning of the cheapening of food, and where the durability became very important, yet the quality became increasingly ignored. The idea of food to nourish turned into something to sell and profit from. However, with strong marketing campaigns and ‘scientific research’ to advertise new nutritional discoveries within meat, dairy, and wheat, the public believed that they were choosing what was best to keep themselves healthy. This is where the ‘invisible hand’ became essential. “Western governments have been telling the public what to eat for over a century, directly influencing agricultural businesses, food product development, and medicines/antibiotics.” Similar to the automobile industry in both industrial assembly line production and convenience, meat, soy, and hybrid corn became an important product in postwar capitalism (Friedmann, 2008, p. 104) This foodstuff could be made into a vast array of products to be manufactured and sold all over the world. “Techniques of social optimization -such as advertising, standardization, market research, and dietetics- would harmonize wages, production, consumption, labor, and health. More importantly, they sublimated ideological demands for peace, land, and bread within a neutral quantitative language of entitlement. Optimization opened pathways to progress that bypassed developmental dead-ends predicted by Marx and Malthus.” (Cullather, 2007, p. 351) The body became the new frontier.
Developing alongside these manufactured products was also the feed the meat needed to eat. In fact, many industries were developing around food at this time, from the pharmaceuticals to keep the animals healthy, to the chemicals and preservatives to make food more long lasting. Packaging, plastics, marketing, and logistics also became an integral part of this machine. The problem with all this development was that so many companies were making so much money, that governments were starting to partner with the corporations, because the food system had become such a huge economic power for the modern state. This was also integrated into the idea that the calorie as a measurement of energy was the only and most important measure of maintaining good health. Therefore, this time was a historical transition for the modern state in terms of biopolitics. “Accounting for and taking care of the population became central to the nationality of the government.” (Rajan, 2006 , p. 79) The nutritional research funding, agricultural policies, and choice of raw materials were determined by the partnering corporations now creating the food prices for the people and the ‘health of the nation’. Liberalism and privatization by corporations took hold of the food system. These companies then decided when, what, and how to add artificial substances and preservatives. Because the price of food was now determined by policies made by governments partnered with these manufacturers, or Foucault’s ‘jurisdiction of price’, the cheapening of labor, soil, and agriculture became the roots of the food system. The primary mission of food companies is, and always were, to sell products. If the price is kept low, billions can be fed, and billions of dollars can be made. Unfortunately, this was at a cost of people’s increasingly bad health.
MODERN FOOD REGIME
Today, these corporate strategies have only escalated into a neoliberal biopolitical regime of sovereignty within the food system. Feeding the population and keeping them healthy were once ‘state’ services, but the state itself has now adopted corporate strategy, and vice versa. We live in an age of biocapitalist food governance, dependent upon the relationships of institutions, corporate-funded scientists, and corporations, in which does not put health first. Moreover, there are unfortunate targets for these strategies. Foucault describes this as excluding certain sects of a population for experimentation purposes; biopolitical reasons to exploit the ones ‘left behind’. The sacrificed then become the consumed. (Rajan, 2006 , p. 99) (Foucault, 31 January 1979, 2008). The people who can only afford cheap low-quality food then become available to the systems of capital. In 2007, 70% of American adverts were for junk food, while 2.2% were for fruits and vegetables. (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003, p. 22) This is an integral part of selling these products to people who have no general nutritional knowledge or understanding of how bad this food really is. Nutritional confusion is only the beginning of the monopoly.
The food system has become a gigantic ticking clock, with many mechanisms and moving parts, increasingly with the sole purpose of profit. In order to find a way out of obesity, one has to find a way to dissect this clock. But ‘changing the way food is produced, sold, and marketed threatens neoliberal corporations…every decision a company makes that might undercut profits in one part must be made up somewhere else.’ (Simon, 2006, p. 16) Hidden inside most processed foods are large quantities of sugar, fat, and salt. 90% of salt intake comes from food processing, preparation, and flavoring, with only 10% naturally occurring in the food itself. (Simon, 2006, p. 13) The agriculture and food sectors are now connected to the chemical industry at all phases from fertilizers to preservatives. Modern food technologies only extend and deepen these connections. (Friedmann, 2008, p. 111) The more biotechnology gets involved, the more the food system could be put at further risk. Currently, muscle tissue from the cells of cultured beef is being harvested, in which has already created a $1.5 billion lab meat industry in the US. This is a biopolitical dream. What is worrisome is companies like Amazon, Google, and major Silicon Valley investors are cornering this market. We are already in deep trouble from our neoliberal food corporation controlled past, with obesity as its apparent result. Now what happens when a “handful of global corporations want to control everything from the way we communicate, travel and inform ourselves to the way we eat. What could possibly go wrong?” (Steel, Sitopia, 2020) Moreover, if food is not coherent or valued now, imagine what the future may hold, and what kinds of diseases could follow as organic capitalism unfolds. People are capitalism. Not only will corporations govern populations and individuals, but also cells, molecules, genomes, and genes. (Peters, 2010, p. 111) First, corporations devoured the soil, and now they are devouring our us.
As the discussion established, the food industry has a powerful influence on what we consume, and therefore our health. The more we consume, the more the food industry sells its products. The problem is, there is only so much we can eat. Food companies cannot grow any faster than population growth. This makes the free market economy extremely competitive, and the food corporations must sell at whatever cost, hence their aggressive marketing. Governments are a prime target for these industries. Conventional legal processes persuade the government to create policies for support of their products. (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003) The government creates dietary guidelines which are essentially political agreements about what science tells us is nutritious and what the food corporations want to sell us to eat. Our food choices are influenced by these complex sets of policies, in which directly impact our well-being.
Corporations form alliances with top health experts, releasing nutritional advice for their specific marketing campaigns. The funding and research are designed around the products these corporations want to sell. This often leaves the smaller companies at a loss where research and finances are concerned, and therefore mergers take place. This makes health agenda and product focus always in the hands of the food giants. In the US, 3 companies alone accounted for almost 20% of food expenditure. (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003, p. 13) When these companies continue their developmental processes, health becomes a factor only when they realize its marketing potential. They fool the public quite easily by ‘green-washing’ their hyper-processed bleached products with labels like ‘added iron’ and ‘enriched vitamin C’. There is no scientific evidence that these isolated nutrients can even be absorbed in this form, therefore creating undernourished bodies that are still hungry. Consuming more is certainly good for these corporations. They pay doctors and scientists to research vital information regarding this enriched nutrition using this knowledge power to trick consumers and continue the cycle.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that, in most western countries, medical doctors receive minute levels of nutritional training. “73% of medical schools offer less than the recommended twenty-three hours and most of this is obscure nutrition biochemistry, quickly forgotten. This leaves around 2 or 3 hours for anything remotely practical within a six-year medical degree.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 225) A lot of these doctors are approached and paid by lobbyists to make sweeping statements or self-interested publications, disguising their industrial food by making other positive claims. “Coco-Cola via the not-for-profit organization International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), has embedded itself in the Chinese Health Ministry to ensure that the benefits of exercise are highlighted, rather than diet or ultra-processed food being targeted as concern.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 226)
In addition, government officials often become lobbyists themselves, advancing their careers through the revolving door between business and government. The lobbyists alone in the US represent a multi-billion dollar industry. The lobbied governments then create policies that have been essentially purchased by companies like Kraft, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Dole, and The American Meat Institute donate soft money to Democratic and Republican campaigns. Chiquita bananas contributed close to a million dollars in 1998 to both Republicans and Democrats. The price of sugar has been controlled by the US for more than 200 years, and it is another massive contributor to the US government. “In 2000, Alfonso Fanjul (who controls one third of Florida’s sugar cane industry) hosted a dinner attended by Bill Clinton that raised more than a million dollars for the Florida Democratic party.” (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003, p. 109) The biopolitical nature of these corporation’s policies have taken the power away from the individual to consume healthy food; their marketing budgets alone far outweigh the government’s ability to make its own decisions, which allows the corporations to keep feeding us.
Corn is the largest crop grown in the US. However, much of the corn being grown is not actually edible, but a commodity corn. It is used for animal feed, corn syrup, corn starch, and sweeteners. The only way to eat it is to process it. “High fructose corn syrup is the smoking gun at the scene of the obesity epidemic.” (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013)160) As of 2007, The US actually paid farmers $28 per acre to grow it. Initially these were farm subsidies, but in 1973, US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butts, turned this into a government program promoting agribusiness expansion. Farmers
with small farms were squeezed out by the architecture of these reforms. One result was that all the smaller crops stopped being grown. These expansions and lack of diversity increased corn monocropping to what it is today. In combination with this, most corn-belt states began using ammonia fertilizer to grow the corn. This cannot be good on a consistent level for soil health, or the people consuming it in whatever form they get it in. Liberty Pesticide kills one of the main weeds that attract corn, but you can only use it on Liberty-link corn that has been genetically modified to resist the liberty pesticide. But what does this modification really do to the corn itself, and what does liberty pesticide then do to us?
The grasslands of Colorado where cattle used to graze has been turned into corn farms to feed the cows. Cows are now raised alongside them. Grass has been replaced by corn as the principal feed for cows. But the cows cannot really digest the corn, so they have to be fed antibiotics as they develop stomach issues and get sick. These antibiotics also help these cows live through the misery of being fed corn they cannot digest and being held up sick in a pin for all of their lives. In the eyes of the industrialists, however, the corn is better than the grass, because it makes the cows much fatter, especially if they are confined in pins. This method allows for a quicker path to the food chain. McDonald’s hamburgers need to meet a price point. The western world is used to eating cheap food. Grass-fed beef and happy cows are far too expensive for the way the corporate food model currently works, even if it is better for the soil, the cows, and us. (Wolf, 2007)
Processed foods made from things like corn are far cheaper than real food. This is because even if countries spend massive sums on health, our governments subsidize unhealthy food through taxes. “Around a third of all US subsidies go to corn and wheat producers and even food additives for processed foods are subsidized, whereas most fruit and vegetable receive zero. EU subsidies are similar, with 41 billion euros in 2018 favoring all ingredients (including sugar, meat, dairy, soy, and animal feed) that are made into unhealthy processed foods which are also bad for the environment.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 238) Corporate corn is running much of the American food system. “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are our citizens.” Words spoken by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, while proudly accepting his leadership role into the Office of American Innovation. Mr. Kushner not only (unknowingly) slammed democracy, but also proved in front of his country the truth behind the American government, and that when it is run like a business, “citizen-customers would become its unprotected, exploitable, and manipulable objects of gain.” (Brown, 2019, p. 30)
The US uses its most valuable land to feed livestock. Half of the corn being produced is used for animal feed. 1/3 of it is used for sweeteners. Almost all packaged and processed foods contain some form of corn sweetener. This means that if someone exists on primarily industrial and fast foods, most of their entire diet is this GMO corn laced with pesticides and antibiotics. (Wolf, 2007) This corn then becomes a form of capital power, embedded through our food system, by processes, packages, marketing, and supermarket shelves, and is inescapable. It is almost impossible to escape the wrath of corn. We also know that this industrial corn causes obesity. Yet, ‘citizen-customers’ remain paralyzed, powerless, and fat under its neoliberal grip.
People in poverty would need to pay about 74% of their income if they wanted to eat healthy. (Shannon, March 2013) This is how low quality food is making the ‘left behind’ populations obese. Their power to choose has been taken away by economics, and veiled advertising thrives on this. “Since junk food yields by far the highest profits, this is where the bulk of the budget goes. In 2012, the US fast-food industry spent $4.6 billion on advertising; by comparison, the department of Agriculture (USDA) spent just $6.5 million promoting fruit and vegetables.” (Steel, Sitopia, 2020, p. 58)
Many of these populations progressively live in food deserts. The neoliberal principles of institutions being of private ownership owning and selling wherever and whatever food they want creates these deserts. McDonald’s knows that these consumers can only afford their food. This is the primary cause of these communities’ poor health. “On a neighborhood level, socioeconomic and demographic factors were the strongest predictors of obesity rates.” (Chan, 2009). Or as Foucault claims, the power in a population goes to whom can control the physical elements of the milieu, or community, as it changes the physical state of the species. (Foucault, 11 January 1978, 2004) Moreover, in order to intervene, the state has to rethink this neoliberal social ecology. The less control the state has over the health and well-being of these communities, the more obesity increases.
Foucault’s concepts examining schools, prisons, and hospitals, and how they determined and manipulated the population, was a form of social control. We can look at social ecology in a similar fashion, recognizing that it is a form of neoliberal governance. The placement of certain fast-food restaurants and supermarkets in a neighborhood directly affects the choices that a ‘free’ citizen has to make, especially if there is not a healthful choice. Taking advantage of the docility of Smith’s ‘economic man’ is why governments are forced by the corporations to resist change in these environments.
Governments hide behind a kind of ‘neoliberal paternalism’ in order to combat the problem. (Shannon, March 2013) This is a kind of Keynesian welfare approach, in which the poor can no longer ‘manage themselves’, so the state must step in. Basically, the people are to blame, not McDonald’s. But even if on the surface it appears the state is intervening, governments are so tightly intertwined into the corporate food regime that any real change is still linked to profit. The corporations simply own the community. (Jessop, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Urban Governance: A State Theoretical Perspective, 2002). Dr. Chris van Tulleken conducted research into how ultra-processed food was affecting communities who had only recently been exposed to it. He travelled to the Amazon Basin in Brazil. Eating ultra-processed foods in these areas have gradually increased over the last fifteen years, and their obesity rates have tripled. Ten years ago, Nestle food sponsored a floating supermarket filled with their products, delivering weekly to these communities. It was promoted as delivering nutrition, health, and wellness products to these poor remote areas that ‘needed help’. The shop floor of the boat was 100 square meters, filled with milk powder, baby food, processed cereals, biscuits, crisps, and candy. The ten-year program ended in 2017. The Brazilian government has since created guidelines to stay away from ultra-processed food. (Dr. van Tulleken, 2021)
Most of the food available in food deserts contain high fructose, hidden salts, trans-fat, preserved (often carcinogenic) meats, and fast foods. Most of these foods are also high in GMOs (genetically modified organisms), even before they are processed and preserved. They lack nutritional value, and in some cases, can barely be considered food anymore. Adding fat, salt, and sugar to foods makes them tastier and addictive. Since there is no nutrition inside, the body never feels satisfied; it just wants more. Moreover, these foods are all closely linked with obesity. “The poorest in society have never eaten well, yet in an ironic modern twist, many of the 47 million US citizens who depend on government stamps live in food deserts and are thus forced to spend them on junk food.” (Steel, Sitopia, 2020, p. 58) The communities that got’ left behind’ are being devoured. Governments are also lobbied by the food corporations to ‘solve these issues’ by enriching industrial foods through ‘green-washing’, allowing them further profit. This is much easier than tackling the socio-economic inequalities that deny people adequate income to afford a proper diet. (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013, p. 201) Even building inexpensive supermarkets in these communities could have potential, but the food system is so damaged at this point that these types of supermarkets are laden with cheap industrial GMO fruits, vegetables, and ‘green-washed’ products filled with antibiotics, all in which is still more expensive than a Happy Meal and Coke. As long as we are still a society based around privatization, then neoliberal social ecology will continue to effect public health. (Simon, 2006)
Exercise is still a common old-fashioned con used by the food industry to ‘cure’ fat people. Governments are persuaded by them to also solve the obesity problems in these communities by building parks and bike paths. (Shannon, March 2013) But this is scientifically proven false, serving only as a band-aid. This 100-year-old theory of calories in equals calories out is still being marketed. “Since the 1980’s, the food and drink industry has kept this idea going with sustained subtle advertising campaign influencing the public to think that they are only fat because of slothfulness and if only people did more exercise, they could eat and drink as many sugary foods as they wanted.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 176) After all, the ‘economic man’ is free to choose what to consume. “A study of fourteen champion TV dieters in the US found exercise the least successful way to lose weight, and only played a minor role in keeping it off…a number of trials have clearly shown that weight loss is much greater in the dieting groups than exercise groups, and exercise only works to any degree if you eat less at the same time.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 174) The neoliberal governments want fewer obesity-related health demands on the state, so for them, the exercise solution ticks all the boxes; it allows these ultra-processed foods to be sold and consumed by people living in these neighborhoods, yet it will not upset policies and food corporations, which would be un-friendly to business. All the community has to do is stop being lazy, take a bike ride, and burn it off.
Being divided away into these sections of the city doesn’t help the situation either. There is a disconnection to the environment from living in urban landscapes. There are no backyard gardens, or even an understanding of how food is grown and then cooked. (Chan, 2009). “Social inequality is the biggest driver of health…these people get shamed, but they simply don’t have access…raising the minimum wage would have a lot more of an impact on people’s health rather than telling people to eat vegetables…our health campaigns should be about how people can live well, not about what they should do,” says Linda Bacon, PhD and body liberation advocate. (Bacon, 2021) Over-reaching patriarchal fat-shaming only makes these communities feel more separated. Better lifestyle choices and food diversity are just not within reach. These neighborhoods are an analogy for the broken food system itself. Modern soil is so depleted because of mono-cropping for so many generations, all while using pesticides and GMO seeds, eroding any natural relationships and secluding it from other life, poisoning whatever it grows. These are these communities. “Our problem is that we have used technology to turn evolutionary logic on its head. In the process of becoming human, we’ve stopped adapting ourselves to suit our environment, and have instead adapted our environment to suit us. This exo-evolutionary approach worked for a while, yet its recent rapid acceleration has left our bodies out of sync with the world…As Darwin noted, it is the degree to which a species is suited to its environment, not its cleverness, that ensures its survival.” (Steel, Sitopia, 2020)
Western governments are not taking the right approach for these obese and over-weight citizens that are struggling at the lower ends of the system. Their wellbeing depends upon cheap empty calories often at the expense of the barbaric misuse of workers, animals, and the earth. (Lavin, 2009) Social ecology should be the one of the key actors in solving so many of these issues. The food corporations have power over how they obtain, create, and distribute their industrial food, but also the biopower over these neighborhoods, which also allow them to behave in whatever way they choose. The environment molds a citizen’s behavior and life and, “individual choices are unavoidably situated within fields of power…the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government.” (Shannon, March 2013) (Foucault, 31 January 1979, 2008) This points to how obesity is a bio-ecological symptom. Foucault discusses the 18th-century doctor Lanthenas, who describes society at that time, and the vast differences between the rich and the poor. Lanthenas writes, ”The rich…living in the midst of ease, surrounded by the pleasures of life, their irascible pride…and the excesses to which their contempt of all principles leads them makes them prey to infirmaries of all kind…” (Colas, 2018, p. 201) (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, 1973, p. 38) “But the poor,” says Foucault, “know only taxes that reduce them to penury, scarcity that benefits only the profiteers, and unhealthy housing that either forces them ‘either to refrain from raising families or to procreate weak, miserable creatures’”. (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, 1973, p. 38) The strategic neoliberal programming of these communities, for the economic man’s consumption, is one of the key invisible factors behind this disease.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MORALS
Fat-shaming has a long history. Brillat-Savarin explains in his 1826 book, “Physiologie du Gout”, that “if obesity is not a disease, it is at least an unfortunate indisposition, into which we nearly always fall through our own fault…it is our obligation to ‘cure’ obesity should we fall prey to it, through a combination of ‘discretion in eating, moderation in sleeping, and exercise on foot or on horseback.” (Colas, 2018) This vein of thinking is still being marketed by today’s food system because health, diet, and food choices are still under moral control. (Levenstein, 1996, p. 521) (Shapin, 2003, p. 22) Following the protocols of a healthy lifestyle are morally respected in western societies, making this theory the escape goat of many food companies. It is thought that if you are obese, then you are lazy, unmanageable, and (often) of lower class. “For those already marginalized within US culture- including women, people of color, immigrants, working class and poor people- being fat can be yet one more badge of stigma.” (Herndon, 2005, p. 128) The scholar Critser compared obesity to catching HIV, claiming that places like McDonald’s is where the ‘high-risk population’ like to engage in high-risk behavior, just like the San Francisco bathhouses. Implying that uncontrollable urges for a greasy hamburger is the same as gay men not being able to resist themselves in ‘dangerous’ bathhouses. (Critser, 2000) Both claims are implicitly racist, and by making this analogy, he is saying obesity is against nature and immoral. Obesity is not about an ‘urge’ for vast amounts of the population, particularly if you are a minority, in which it is often an economic disparity, as previously discussed. Moreover, science is also proving that ultra-processed food is addictive.
In one study, Dr. Chris Van Tulleken, 42, performed a 30-day diet where he switched from a very healthy diet to 100% ultra-processed food. The mental changes were vast with symptoms of anxiety, poor sleep, constipation, piles, excessive hunger, and heartburn. He gained 6.5 kilos, his BMI went up from 24 to 27 (into the overweight category), and his body fat went up by 3 kilos. The hunger hormones in his blood went up by 30%, yet the hormones that make you feel full went down. After looking at a brain scan, before and after the diet, there were entirely new connections between different parts of the brain. It showed that the reward part of his brain was now linked to repetitive automatic behaviour. Therefore, the brain began to tell him that he wanted to eat food without being hungry. This is what is seen in brains of addicts for drugs or alcohol. Imagine a child’s brain that is still developing and on these kinds of diets since birth, setting up these hormonal communications. After all, 20% of people eat like this for most of their lives in the UK, with most from poor communities. At six months, according to this study, he would have gained 6 stone. When he got off the diet, he felt significantly better, and lost most of the weight. But, more than a month after the diet, he had another brain scan. The new hormone communication system developed during the diet had still not gone back to normal. (Dr. van Tulleken, 2021)
Weber points out in ‘The Protestant Ethic’ that the Protestant idea of serving God is by ‘following your calling’; your hard work serves Him by being virtuous and strong, and you are strong because of living a ‘pure and healthy’ lifestyle. (Weber, 2001)These principles are common rationality embedded within capitalism, spilling over into one’s lifestyle, where moral and medical follow the same terrain. The diet and food industry often plays this Protestant card, which markets this pure and clean idea into foods and diets. Skimming out ‘harmful’ foods makes one closer to God by the willpower and resistance one asserts upon themselves. As the Protestant poster child Benjamin Franklin purported, “The difficulty lies, in finding out an exact measure, but eat for necessity, not pleasure, for lust knows not where necessity ends.” (Fraser, 1998, p. 19) Even fasting can be linked to a relationship with God in Jewish, Arabic, and Christian cultures. “Fasters are pilgrims who believe their world is bounded by God (or gods) and fasting will bind then to that world…from the enlightenment to the present, the healthy body is also the body in control of its own destiny…” (Gilman, 2008, p. 1499)
On the other hand, Susan Orbach, a 70’s writer and nutritionist claims, “Obesity in women is not about the lack of self-control or power, it is about sex, nurturance, protection, and rage…a response to the inequality of the sexes.” (Orbach, 1978, p. 200) She professes that women find some kind of power within over-eating; the power has been taken away from them by patriarchal control within society, implying that women are angry because they must be a particular shape. Weight Watchers, one of the most powerful dieting companies, based their entire concept around this theory, with weekly emotional support groups promoting that dieting can help one gain back control of their lives, and therefore their weight. In the 70s, women were pulling further away from domesticity. Not knowing how to cook and eating convenience food became a kind of defiance. But what new studies show us is that obesity happened because women were fooled and became over-weight because of what was in their food, not because they were Weber’s ‘out of control’ or Obach’s ‘raging’. We also now know that eating industrial weight-loss Weight Watchers diet foods only exacerbate the problem. It is pathetic is that this moral fat-shaming affected several generations of women and continues.
Starting in the late 50’s, The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company needed a calculation to use for measuring people’s bodies for the purposes of determining their life insurance premiums. This BMI rating measured height, weight, and body type, calculating that if you didn’t fit these standards of body weight, then you will incur more costs to the company. Therefore, the western BMI index rating, from quite a racist perspective, told us what an acceptable body size was. (Colas, 2018) This became the medicalization of obesity, accepted by the W.H.O. and all health practitioners world-wide. But the BMI index is a sweeping vague measurement based around an ideal body type for mostly white western people. It never specifies the difference between an overweight person on one body frame and a BMI Index-obese person on another. “This is also an early contribution to the neoliberal project, as the biopolitical drive to exercise control over mortality and public hygiene is displaced onto a private insurance company instead of the state.” (Lavin, 2009, p. 74) In this respect, this medicalization points back towards the individual’s moral and personal responsibility to ‘take control of themselves’, fueling the diet industry.
Foucault talks about how the ‘first task of the doctor is political’, and by taking this perspective, the health industry needs to be far more forthright showing that obesity is an effect of biopolitics, not bad morals. Doctors prescribe a ‘norm’ within society through tools such as the BMI and are authorized to “not only distribute advice as to a healthy life, but also to dictate the standards for physical and moral relations of the individual and of the society in which he lives.” (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, 1973, p. 40) Most doctors are not nutritionists; they are armed only with some knowledge of BMI. “They receive very little training in nutrition but are four times more likely to sell a book based on a diet than a dietician or nutritionist. Their advice varies widely and is often contradictory.” (Thorley, 2021, p. 2) Many doctors sign up with commercial clinics to prescribe unproven and dangerous combinations of diets and pills to anyone interested. (Fraser, 1998, p. 12) In the 70’s and 80’s, there were very few scientific studies around obesity and weight gain, allowing any doctor who wanted to the ability to test their theories about dieting on the public. Since they were usually trying to sell books, doctors told them what they wanted to hear. “You can eat luxuriously- heavy cream, butter, mayonnaise, cheeses, meats, fish, fowl”, promised Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist. -These doctors were the new experts on weight-loss…exercising their professional paternalistic power. (Fraser, 1998, p. 62) The famous Atkins diet promoted eating meat and saturated fats, allowing very little carbohydrates. However, this diet strains the kidneys and denies the body of very important vitamins and minerals. “Frederick Stare, a Harvard obesity specialist, said that it bordered on malpractice to recommend such large proportions of saturated fats and cholesterol when the hazards to the heart are well known. The American Medical Association called it a “bizarre regimen” that is “without scientific merit”. (Fraser, 1998, p. 65) Atkins excitingly told his followers, “Political action and protest on your part can help revolutionize the food industry, by forcing it to de-carbohydrate many foods- just as it has de-calorized some foods- but with a federal law to back this change!” (Fraser, 1998, p. 64)
What many doctors, public health officials, and concerned journalists writing in support of the war against obesity fail to recognize, however, is that a war against obesity also means a war against fat people.” (Herndon, 2005, p. 129) The people in our society holding the knowledge power of the health of our bodies have a responsibility to make the public more aware of these biopolitical actions, stepping away from moral claims. Manipulation through morals by doctors, public health officials, and food corporations need to be addressed in order to stop blaming the obese. Science shows us it is not their fault.
CHAPTER 2. THE DIET INDUSTRY
Vitamins were discovered in the early 20th century, and a new nutritional paradigm began. This ‘Vitamania’ was seized upon by the food industry, with marketing campaigns claiming all sorts of health resolutions and cures. Vitamins were weightless, tasteless, and invisible, proving to be a marketing wonderland. “Fleishmann’s Yeast Company spent enormous amounts spreading the message that eating four of its slimy yeast cakes a day would provide enough vitamin B to “rid the body of poisonous wastes,” raise energy levels, and cure indigestion, constipation, acne, pimples, “fallen stomach”, and “underfed blood”. (Levenstein, 1996, p. 522) Today’s marketing for protein shakes, vitamin waters, and Redbull are not dissimilar.
There arose an idea in the 70’s that certain foods were to be avoided, creating food ‘evils’. The food and diet industries created products and labels claiming non-fat and low-cholesterol, creating mass hysteria of what to avoid. Dairy was ‘in’ in the 70’s, pasta was ‘out’. Fads continued, and by the 90’s carbs were seen as evil, and it was thought that fat could kill you. Today, marketing has persuaded the public that gluten is virtually considered poisonous. The principle of diets is to threaten with dangerous foods. Whole food groups are abandoned if they are not altered; but these alterations and paradigms make companies a lot of money. Diets like Atkins emerge, removing food ‘evils’ with vast blanketing statements promoting the fear of certain food groups with no validity. “Different things work for different people. Food corporations marketing food ‘evils’ make dietary advice and nutrition become biopolitical. In fact, new food movements could be described as disguised forms of neoliberalism.” (Rebrovik, 2015). This has always created public confusion about health and nutrition. What was healthy one hundred years ago would be laughed about today. Or, as Pollan points out, “Nutrition science today is approximately where surgery was in the year 1650-very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you?” (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013)18) (Pollan, 2008) Moreover, Foucauldian biopolitical epistemes monitor, control, and document what we consume as a population. They change as we find new sources of information, or as new discoveries and technologies are made and developed. But note that what is important here is who is paying for the research, as that is where the power is within the paradigm. Nutritionists and health experts come together with food corporations and pay them what to research and publish based on the nutritional paradigms that are in vogue, i.e., what is selling. “Obesity researchers’ thinking is distorted most by the fact that almost everyone who funds their work is in the diet business. Scientists’ careers depend on publishing studies…In 1995, the National Institutes of Health spent about $87 million on obesity research (out of a total budget of $11.3 billion), which funded only a small portion of the studies done that year; the lion’s share was funded by companies that are in the business of promoting diets.” (Fraser, 1998, p. 215) These diet companies also fund marketing, sit on advisory boards for companies like Weight Watchers, as well as determine what research will even get released. Therefore, the diet industry is seemingly run by corporate nutritionism paradigms. (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013, p. 13) (Pollan, 2008)
What brings together all of these epistemes “is a promise of self-control in a world of steadily declining agency, where it is threatened first by industrial technology, then by mass media and totalitarian politics, and finally by collections of financial resources and information databases used for niche marketing and consumer manipulation.” (Lavin, 2009, p. 20) By following these diet ‘rules’, health gurus offer the public a type of individual sovereignty, or control over their lives, that has been stripped from them in so many areas, be it political, economic, or food-related. This type of moral abuse manipulates them into believing they have mismanaged themselves. Losing the weight doesn’t solve any real issues around them, but it offers the idea that it is. Staying away from these food ‘evils’ offers the Foucauldian ‘care of the self’, or as a way to meet the social norms of being healthy and fit. They make a profit based on taking advantage of these norms and morals. In 2019, the diet industry was internationally valued at $192.2 billion (Allied Market Research). It is very important for the economy for people to be fat and afraid of food.
The food industry, particularly in the US, has always preferred indeterminate terms in order to include the full spectrum of all its dependent industries. Terms such as “avoid too much” or “go easy” are common when the government releases dietary advice. They also prefer to include all food groups and products within their dietary guidelines, which causes even further confusion. As briefly communicated on the sides of packaging, the classic American ‘Food Pyramid’ guidelines promoting ‘sensible eating’ never states clearly what is an actual fruit, vegetable, grain or meat. Does this mean that a can of corn is your vegetable, GMO strawberries for your fruit, biscuits your grain, and ‘lunch meat’ for protein? There is noticeably never a mention about the word ‘processed’ or ‘quality’ in any of these guidelines. Apart from the confusion on what to eat then, is the government’s vague wording on what to avoid. Tim Rycroft, the CEO of the British Food and Drink Federation, claims that, “Bad diets are intrinsically harmful, not the food itself…we need to work hard for people to make better choices by education…ultra-processed food is not internationally accepted as a true food label as its not scientifically agreed. The food industry needs to be guided by the government, and the government is guided by the scientists. When they find research that what we are doing is unacceptable, then we will change it.” (Dr. van Tulleken, 2021) How does a company this large and important to our health get away with their CEO stating that ultra-processed food is not scientifically agreed, when he is the one paying the scientists?
In 1977, the US government released a report for public health termed “Dietary Goals”. This was a recommendation for Americans to decrease fat, salt, sugar, meat, eggs, and dairy intake and increase fruit, vegetables, carbohydrates, and fish. “Cattle ranchers, egg producers, sugar producers, and the dairy industry registered strong protest at the very idea that Congress might be telling the public that their products were bad for good health. The cattle industry demanded the report’s immediate withdrawal.” (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003, p. 41) This resulted in removing the word ‘decrease’, and instead changing it to ‘increase’ your consumption of lean meat, fish, vegetables, etc. The Senator announced, “he did not want to disrupt the economic situation of the meat industry and engage in a battle with that industry that we could not win.” (Nestle, Food Politics , 2003, p. 41) Preventing bad press is the main goal for food corps, as it obviously effects huge revenue losses. Companies want the public to eat more, not less, and of course, for the ‘economic man’ to purchase from their own free will. They abuse the morale that a proper diet that is promoted and validated by the state will keep one healthy. While on the other side, the government uses its ‘invisible hand’ in which they spread these guideline norms to the public, disguised as ‘securing’ the health of the population. This power, however, shifts over to the corporations, leaving the hands of the government, as they are the ones paying for the research and lobbying the state. This power shift completes a kind of economic cycle. The ‘economic man’ got fat on his own free will and now needs a diet. This bottom-up approach allows for people to remain completely unaware. The obese and overweight population are made to feel abandoned and betrayed from a society they no longer fit into by prescribed social norms, yet it is in fact the state that deserted them. Or in Foucault’s words, created these dividing practices, all contributing to a tailspin of biopower in the wrong hands.
Nutrition science and its research has evolved into a reductive focus on the nutrient composition of foods, concealing and overriding the concerns with production and processing. This is another area of marketing and diet industry abuse which is creating foods with the idea of ‘functional nutritionism’. This is when the labeling focuses on the good in the product, or what is added to the food, and not mention the bad, such as how processed it is. (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013). This kind of extreme implementation can also mean incorporating a diet that is far too rigid, creating nutritional deficiencies, and an obsession with what the health experts advise as ‘healthy’. (Harer, 2018). This greatly effects the body’s hormones and gut health, which is scientifically proven to lead to weight gain, but which fuels this vicious cycle. A classic example of this is margarine compared to butter. Margarine has less in calories, has less fat and cholesterol, and tastes like butter. It has added vitamins which is prominently displayed on the label. This fools the consumer about the importance of the absorption of nutrients, which only happens when they have a relationship with other native nutrients in its whole form. Also, for many years, margarine had labels that declared it to reduce heart disease, isolating the one idea that cholesterol could harm heart health, and therefore stop disease. Margarine also has a long list of other ingredients like trans-fat (signaling highly processed) and it has a base of ultra-processed vegetable oil. Butter, on the other hand, can be made in your own kitchen with salt, water, heavy cream, and lots of whipping.
Low calorie products like frozen ready meals, instant soups, or ‘vitamin-packed’ low-calorie protein bars are common amongst dieters. But the calories in these foods cannot measure wholeness, nutrition, and quality. The more extensively a food is processed, the more opportunities there are for the nutrient profile to be engineered. These are just green-washed industrial foods created around a diet fad paradigm. (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013, pp. 39-45) The back of a Weight Watchers chocolate protein bar lists numerous ingredients, such as bulking agents, fractionated palm kernel oil, and high fructose corn syrup to name just a few. But it comes in at just 84 calories. But isn’t the very idea of diet chocolate smell of deception? (Steel, Sitopia, 2020)41). Yet Weight Watchers is still one of the most successful dieting programs in the world. It has its foundations in a similar WW2 mapping system of calories in, calories out, and everybody’s body is the same. All it takes is a little measuring and some simple daily calculations, and the weight will just drop right off. This goes back to how the calorie was one of the first ways the government could measure and control the population’s health. This Foucauldian calorie allowed for precise numerical measurements of diets for the management of factories, prisons, and schools. (Cullather, 2007, p. 341) (Rebrovik, 2015, p. 682) This was the fundamental birth of fad diets in that the idea of the body being an average for what the entire population might need to lose that extra weight. Therefore, the optimum diet could be developed and prescribed based around general needs. A healthy diet was then a formula, reduced to a measurement of chemical components. “Nutritionism provided a framework for commodifying food production and consumption practices.” (Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, 2013, p. 8) By using this as a biopolitical vehicle, food corporations seized the opportunity; all they had to do was promote diet foods to the public through nutritionists, which would continue their neoliberal grip on the population. (Rebrovik, 2015, p. 683) “Dieting, particularly as it is concentrated around women, drags a vital population into the domain of biopolitics- a population less subject to the disciplinary force of so many institutions like factories and prisons. In the popular weight loss regimes as promoted by organizations such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, the individual body and soul, through a narrative of self-discovery and self-control, becomes the territory on which politics take place.” (Lavin, 2009, p. 6)
CHAPTER 3. THE AFTER EFFECTS
THE GUT HEALTH EPISTEME
Processed food is one of the primary contributors to poor gut health, with increasing evidence showing that this is one of the main causes of obesity. Systems biology, developed in the 1950’s, taps into what the ancient Greeks, Indian Ayervedics, and Chinese Medicine all promoted many centuries ago. As Aristotle once said, “The whole is something besides the parts.” If you think about this in terms of what food we consume, it is also a parallel with what happens after we consume it. If we disrupt the natural food source in its nature-made form, we dissect and confuse the nutrients. The body does not necessarily assimilate and understand a nutrient if it has been taken out of its whole form or is grown with chemicals and jumbled by GMO processes. “What the ancient wisdom traditions understood based on centuries of astute observation, systems biology has since rediscovered…each of these domains interacts with and modifies the others, creating a huge interdependent, muilti-scale network in the body.” (Mayer, 2021, p. 20) Therefore, consuming ‘dissected’ foods heavily effects the health of our gut because of its unnatural form.
Network science and systems biology are new ways that health research is embracing to understand our bodies. It is this idea that all systems relate to each other, spilling over to affect the larger system. This can be analogous with the social ecology of the food deserts, where the simple layout of a neighborhood can indirectly cause obesity in an individual, by using the same macro-micro perspectives. This happens on an even broader level in looking at the food system in this way. Policies made about what crops can be grown and what pesticide is used, indirectly affect many systems, eventually resulting to what goes on our plates, and then in due course, how it affects our gut. Our gut is a complex organ that needs a variety of nutrients and bacteria to keep its microbiome healthy. Recent studies show that the microbiome is our control center for things like metabolism, hormones, and how the body processes food. “In otherwise healthy individuals, diet quality is the major modulator of the gut microbiota, accounting for 57% of host gut variation.” (Jayasinghe, 2016, p. 3) Therefore, if the microbiome is unhealthy, it miscommunicates to the brain and body, and things stop functioning. After some time, diseases like obesity set in because digestion and metabolism are what helps us maintain a healthy weight. Everything is extremely important, even in the smallest of details, in order for the functioning of the ‘whole’ system, as it is all a circular system. This can also be applied to the economy of the corrupt food industries.
Dr. Tulleken’s study of his ultra-processed 30-day diet and brain scan shows that there is a vast communication network in our brains that is controlled by what is happening in our gut. Studies have also found that soil has its own communication system as well, mirroring our own hormonal system. The health of our soil, which may or may not have pesticides in it, directly affects the quality of nutrients in the food being grown in that soil, which then proceeds to how it is processed, or dissected from its whole form, and then what chemicals are added to it so it can be stored and shipped to the consumer. By viewing obesity through this gut health episteme, we are able to let science further expose the food industry. They can no longer hide behind morals and false marketing.
“Let’s take the communication between the plants that we eat and the soil they grow in- which, incidentally, has its own extensive microbiome-as an example. Microbes living in the soil interact with the root system of the plants, providing essential micronutrients and soil organic matter to their growth. The network of immune, hormone-producing, and nerve cells located in our gut wall and the gut microbiome communicate in a similar way as soil microbes interact with plant roots, even using some of the same signaling molecules. Network science is being applied to understand the interactions of soil microbes with the plants, as well as the interactions of our food, our gut microbes, and our bodies.” (Mayer, 2021, p. 13)
Using a system biology approach, we can better understand how the way we treat the health of our planet and communities directly affect our own health. This shows that there is a direct link to the microbial interconnectedness of how our cattle eat and live, the health of the seed varieties in our vegetables, as well as the health of the soil where it is grown.
Professor Patrick Tounian, an advisor in France for the Anti-Obesity league, claims that obesity is mainly a result of genetic factors, which effect the area of the brain that regulate weight function, which is what boosts the appetite and reduces the desire to exercise. He says that body size is genetically pre-determined, and these markers of obesity and overweight measures have no practical usefulness. Dietary advise will not make them lose weight and is proven to be totally ineffective, as it fights against what nature made. (France24news, 2021) Microbial genes certainly play a role in obesity, as childhood obesity is a 21st century phenomenon. Therefore, after 75 years of consuming industrial food, it has definitely changed our genes, but the industrial food is still the culprit. “Compared to our recent ancestors who lived outside cities, enjoying rich and varied diets and without antibiotics, we have only a fraction of the diversity of microbial species living in our guts. Scientists are only now starting to understand the long-lasting impact this has had on all of us…examining the DNA of the microbes in our guts gives us a much better predictor of how fat (or healthy) someone is compared to looking at all of our 20,000 genes.” (Spector, The Diet Myth , 2015, pp. 16-19) It is important to point out that scientific research shows that most obese people have extremely unhealthy guts. The bacteria living in our guts are the communicators to these genes that determine obesity. “A human being is more than the sum of their cells…the 10 trillion human cells that we each contain constitute 10% of the cells within our bodies with the remaining 100 trillion cells, that reside in and on the human body, being of microbial origin…as a consequence of this, our 20,000 human genes are vastly outnumbered by the human microbiome’s 2 to 20 million microbial genes…These microbial genes (99%) are mostly encoded by the bacteria living within the human gut.” (Jayasinghe, 2016, p. 2) In one study, taken by Tim Spector, DNA samples were taken from the umbilical cord at birth and compared it to 9-year-old obese children. They found that certain (retinoid receptor) candidate genes were already determined into those that would become fat later. All the children’s mothers had had a diet very low in carbohydrates, yet very high in fat and protein. (Spector, Identically different: Why you can change your genes, 2012, p. 185) The hormonal communication system had been altered, even to the unborn children. This suggests that bad influences on our genes can be targeted and prevented with nutrition for the future, but this is also very clear evidence of the extreme damage processed food has done to not only us, but to our future generations as well.
Policies and decisions being made about our food system are the most important ones for every living person, because it spirals down to the micro level of the very bacteria in our bodies. Unfortunately for the last several generations, we have disrupted this circular system, indirectly affecting what diseases we have. By reducing the quality of our foods by industrialization, with the increase of yields and the decrease of production costs becoming the sole objective over our health, we have a confused, mistrusting, and infected society and environment. The Western diet and food systems have now also been adopted by less developed countries, in which it is now seeing the same results, spilling over into their communities. Furthermore, giving us further proof of the problem. The Marshall Islands presents an extreme example of how far things have spiraled. Their obesity rates are among the highest in the world, with an average of 57.3% for women and 48.4% in men. (Global Nutrition Report, 2020) The US captured this area during WW2. Before this, they were hunter gatherers, eating entirely off the land. When the US started a nuclear testing site, the population was moved to the city, where they were mandated to live on imported foods from the US. This consisted entirely of ultra-processed foods, in which they became hugely under nourished. 75% of women and 50% of men suffer from diabetes, and they are now labeled as ‘The New World Syndrome’. (Steel, Sitopia, 2020, p. 59) Gut health diversity requires the consumption of various whole foods. Fresh shellfish and local greens caught, picked, and eaten all on the same day does not have the same nutritional value as corned beef and canned peas. The level of healthy bacteria found in the latter is close to nothing. If we think of ecosystems like a tropical forest, and that all species are not created equal, the gut microbiome makes more sense. “Tall trees” are the foundational species in the forest, as they cover and protect the environment for all the other species to thrive. If the tall trees are wiped out, then the survival of the forest is in danger. (Zhang, 2015, p. 982) Therefore, when ultra-processed foods filled with antibiotics and pesticides get flushed into our guts, we put our systems in danger, too. They wipe out whole colonies of extremely important bacteria that regulate our weight.
We can also apply network science to the mathematical sequencing of food profiles. It is also a labyrinth of interlinking structures that greatly contribute to our gut health when we eat it. The calorie measurement system provides no information on how our body will actually process that calorie, or the quality of energy that it gives us. “New studies add another layer of complexity, showing that foods with comparable nutritional profiles can have very different effects on health outcomes and gut microbiome.” (Spector, Spoon-Fed, 2020, p. 19) All calories are not equal, and enriched industrial food is simply not processed by our guts in the same way that whole organic foods are. In addition, when we eat large amounts of foods with added sugar and fat, contributing to this destructive formula, our gut flora has no choice but to deteriorate. Moreover, this coupled with antibiotics are some of the main sources of weight gain.
Tim Spector describes in his book The Diet Myth a comparison analysis conducted by New York microbiologist, Marty Blaser. He showed a graph of a governmental study of obesity rates over an approximate 20-year period over the American states. In 1985, for example, a state could be 10% obese, slowly growing to 25% over time. In 1989, no state had more than 14% obese. But by 2018, all states had obesity percentages over 20%, except for Colorado and Hawaii. The south was the highest and the west the leanest. What is fascinating is that they did the same mapping system for antibiotic use. It had the exact same correlating numbers. The less a state used antibiotics, like California and Oregon, it seemed they had been spared the obesity growth rates. (Spector, The Diet Myth , 2015, p. 250)
Antibiotic production is mostly used for farming and agriculture. “In Europe around 50 to 60% of antibiotics are destined for agriculture, with big differences between neighboring countries in their usage. In the US, around 80% of all antibiotics used now are for farming.” (Spector, The Diet Myth , 2015, p. 251) Therefore, even if you do not personally take antibiotics, you are most likely eating them. “Short and long-term modifications of gut microbiome can also result from antibiotics, which reduce diversity by promoting the elimination of some bacterial species and antibiotic resistance by horizontal transfer within the remaining flora.” (Jayasinghe, 2016, p. 3) We now have a very depleted microbiome compared to our ancestors. By looking at the few hunter-gatherer tribes left on the planet, we can compare what has changed. The Hazda Tribe in Tanzania was followed by an American, Jeff Leach, a co-founder of The Gut Health Project. He lived with them for six months studying their diet and lifestyle, as well as adopting their diet. His microbiome rapidly changed, although it never got near to the same health as the tribal members, further implying permanent damage by western diets. “The Hazda may eat over five hundred different species of plants and animals; this included zebra, kudu, dik-dik, porcupine, all sorts of birds, honey, and many different types of high-fiber tuber roots, baobab and multiple berries…the most striking result was that each tribesman carried a vastly increased diversity of microbial health compared to Europeans.” (Spector, The Diet Myth , 2015, p. 125) Ultimately, these studies show us that things like the introduction of antibiotics and ultra-processed food have dramatically altered our gut health, and also like in Dr. Tulleken’s brain scan, are irreversible.
Obesity is a complex biopolitical disease that is often rooted in concealed governmental policies that are influenced by corporate lobbying, having the effect of manipulating populations through norms and morals to further business interests. This chain reaction ensues, and the diet industry appears to band-aid the problems the food system has inflected on people that have been morally shamed and embarrassed by a condition that they are not even responsible for. Change needs to start from the beginning of this domino effect, untangling neoliberal false marketing that is hiding behind calculations of caloric content and false morality. These changes could benefit many intertwined systems, as network science shows us that everything has an important biological connection. Through this perspective, soil health is directly responsible for our gut health. If we have healthy guts, we are not obese. Therefore, soil health is an important factor in curbing obesity. Our communities cannot be built without access to fresh high quality food if we want to tackle obesity issues. Corporate interference within these systems have proved to be toxic. It is not acceptable for the food industry to hide behind social norms and continue to blame the obese. It is important to bring attention to these root causes so communities can be made more aware of what is actually happening behind their consumption.
There is now greater understanding that obesity is about the powerlessness an individual has, not only over their own bodies, but also of an economic and political nature, which has been fostered by the state.
Diets and diet foods only exacerbate the issue, and discrimination against whole food groups destroy the microbiome in our gut, which is essential for a healthy weight. “Fewer resources should be invested in studying whether or not a low-carbohydrate diet is marginally better than a low-fat diet, or whether intermittent fasting provides marginally better short-term outcomes than a so-called Paleo diet. Crowning a diet king because it delivers a clinically meaningless difference in bodyweight fuels diet hype, not diet help.” (Freedhoff, 2016, p. 850) Making an average diet plan for the collective population to follow not only disguises the damaging effects enriched industrial food does to our health, but it also manipulates people who have gained weight or become obese because of the food industry and the diet food itself.
Foucault’s concept of social history, or recording history through the perspective of an episteme, is important if we want to learn how the government lost its power by handing it over to corporations, thereby deflating our individual sovereignty, and creating this health crisis we now have on our hands. By learning from this, we need to use the knowledge power of network science and turn our current paradigm on its head. Exposing unhealthy guts can be a part of this, as there is no longer anywhere for the food industry to hide.
Social ecology is an important factor in redesigning communities that are in economic distress. The power given to privatized food companies owning whole neighborhoods should be addressed and is a key component to building back trust within the government. Understanding that there is a connection among community health, individual health and isolation is a way to solve some of the issues within food deserts. Obesity is the symptom and the symbol of helplessness for many people stuck inside the corrupt food system.
The power of the corporations and their marketing campaigns must be discussed and reduced. Governments need to step in and limit or remove their incredible capacity to market and ‘nudge’ foods that are not good for us. Transparency about quality and process should be a standardized list beside the nutrients on labels. Governments should also have stronger control over how and what food is produced, putting health over the profit. They need to gain back power independent of commercial influences in order to re-build society’s trust within the food system. In addition, there needs to be further research to understand the gut-brain axis and what exactly industrial food is doing to cause so much miscommunication within our bodies, in order to nutritionally target and prevent obesity for the future. These initiatives would all be helpful steps forward in understanding and resolving the biopolitical issues around obesity.
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