Julie Guthman: How responsible are we for our fat?

by Catherine Dolan

We are, we are told, in the throes of an obesity epidemic, supersizing our way to diabetes, heart disease, and premature death. According to conventional wisdom our profligate appetites threaten to cripple our public health system, weaken our economy, and accelerate our vulnerabilities to climate change. To reverse the trend we need to change our consumption habits: put down the down the remote and head to the gym, and spurn burgers and chips for locally-sourced produce from our neighbourhood farmers market.


Professor Julie Guthman of the University of California, Santa Cruz, challenged this established account of the obesity ‘crisis,’ provoking us to look at what the crisis narrative highlights and more importantly what it obscures. According to Guthman, all the attention paid to reforming the dietary decisions of individual consumers is misguided; there is more to spiking obesity rates than calories in and out. Our girth, she argues, is not necessarily a product of our laziness, shoddy food choices, or the obesogenic environment – the prevalence of fast food restaurants, walking paths, or the food available in our communities, workplaces or schools – that surrounds us. These explanations divert our attention from a complex range of economic, biological, and political factors that are equally plausible predictors for the contemporary prevalence of fat. She noted, for example, that the alternative food movement’s promotion of farmers’ markets and seasonal, organic produce fails to account for the political economy and geographies of food availability and affordability: eating right thrives in ‘high end’ areas of race and class privilege, making healthism and the market-based solutions it implies complicit in the obesity epidemic.

Instead, Guthman suggested that we look to the role that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) play in obesity rates, citing a number of environmental obesogens that permeate our food system, from the hormones and pesticides used in the production of meat and crops to the chemicals used in packaging our favorite foods (e.g. perfluorooctanoic acid used making the lining of pizza cartons).  These chemicals not only disturb hormonal balances and promote fat storage but can also induce changes in genes themselves, potentially altering the bodily form for future generations. According to Guthman, prenatal and perinatal exposures to these and other chemicals (e.g. those found in hair dye, medicines, cosmetics etc.), can help to explain why we see accelerating rates of obesity in newborns and children.

Thinking about how environmental toxins contribute to obesity shifts the lens away from how much we move and eat, and like David Barling’s earlier seminar, takes the notion of the autonomous free-choosing consumer to task. Indeed, if we accept Guthman’s argument, consumers may be less responsible for their swelling waistlines than the toxins and food additives that epitomise contemporary industrial food systems.

This was the fifth talk in our seminar series on the Politics and Practices of Food Governance. We will make a recording of this talk available shortly.


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