Weighing In

Julie Guthman’s book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism marks a paradigm shift in our approach to the “problem” of obesity and related topics like farm policy, the “alternative” food system, and food-centered social justice movements. Guthman takes on the mainstream foodie media and writers like Michael Pollan, who, she argues, tout neoliberal fixes for a broken food system that problematically emphasize the education and willpower of individuals to make healthful and environmentally-conscious decisions around food— to “vote with their fork.” She demonstrates not only that these ideologies, and the resulting social movements that have grown from them, are based on faulty, overly-simplified assumptions about health, weight, and the rise in obesity, but that these efforts are in many ways counterproductive because they work along class and racial lines to further ostracize marginalized communities without addressing the root of the problem in the food system, namely exploitative labor practices, lax regulation and the proliferation of toxic chemicals, and the inequalities built into a society based on unfettered capitalism.

Guthman uses a wide variety of sources to form her argument. In early chapters, she frames her argument in opposition to those of food writers and scholars like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, who have spent years criticizing US agricultural policy but still focus on individual behavior as key to solving its problems. She begins with the assumption that obesity is a problem to begin with, an assumption built into many of these books and, in fact, many of the studies that were designed to study it. In analyzing a number of studies focusing on obesity and health, she finds numerous instances of coproduction, subjective qualifications about fat that suggest bias, and a fixation on the idea of what is “normal,” which renders “nonnormal” bodies pathological. She highlights the role of BMI in shaping our misunderstanding of the so-called obesity epidemic, demonstrating that BMI is often a stand-in for overall health simply because it is easy to measure (27), that cutoffs in BMI contribute to the over-exaggeration of overall weight gain in a population (31), and that movements in the cutoffs over time have meant that more people qualify as overweight even without gaining weight (31).

To frame the question “whose problem is obesity?,” Guthman uses student journal entries to “take a pulse,” in a sense, of the conventional wisdom around and attitudes toward obesity among liberal, food-conscious students in her program. In doing so, she finds an alarming degree of hostility towards the political-economy approach to studying the food system’s impact on health; her students often count overweight or obesity as an ethical failure and veil contempt and disgust towards fatness in shallow concerns for “health” (which, of course, is widely conflated with thinness). She refers to these notions that relate weight to morality of an individual as “healthism,” noting that “appeals to health seem to allow a great deal of moral judgement of those who do not appear to adopt practices associated with healthy lifestyles. Therein lies the problem: by coupling health efficacy with notions of rights, responsibilities, and good citizenship, those not captured by its purse seines are afforded little basis on which to make claims for health care and other resources. Healthism thus provides a protective veneer for neglect or exclusion” (62). In other words, given the previous chapter’s argument that the “epidemic” of obesity is exaggerated due to the nature of the research conducted on the topic, the problem of obesity appears to lie more in those who find non-normative bodies distasteful rather than in those who happen to have non-normative bodies.

In her discussion of “obesogenic” neighborhoods, Guthman discusses her own research, where she conducted interviews with white women living in commuter cities in California. In her conversations with these women, she found that it was not the environment but socioeconomic status, and by extension access to resources, that most directly reflected the weight of each woman. Following these observations, she continues her analysis by interrogating the energy-balance theory, the oft-cited but unproven idea that weight gain is simply a result of too many calories in and too few calories out. She examines study after study that assumes the energy-balance theory, despite lack of evidence. She also offers counter-evidence for non-caloric explanations for weight gain, including chemical toxins like synthetic estrogens (found widely in the food system and beyond), which have been proven to cause weight gain in lab mice. In presenting these data and studies, Guthman succeeds in arguing that the “epidemic” that has emerged in the last few decades is more complicated than people eating more now than they did thirty years ago. Rather, there are many confounding factors, which we are only beginning to understand, that may be causing these physiological changes. 

Next, she takes on farm policy, arguing that it is “patently false that subsidies make junk food more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables, as Michael Pollen has promoted” (122). Rather, she points out, fruits and veggies are more labor intensive, present more challenges in long-term storage, and are more challenging to scale up than grains. Guthman highlights other policy approaches that have worked to subsidize farm commodities, and deflate the price of food, focusing in particular on rural farm labor (a topic hardly even mentioned by Pollan, curiously). “Devaluing rural labor to keep food costs low has been one of capitalism’s most abiding tendencies,  and marginalizing and even rendering invisible those who do the labor has been one of farming’s most abiding strategies. This is because the creation of a rural labor force has almost always come by dispossession.” (134) In other words, agriculture and food production are subsidized in far more complex, and often indirect, ways than the commodity program or even the land grant system: water infrastructure, immigration policy, and lax regulatory policy have all made it so the food industry doesn’t have to pay the ‘full cost’ of producing food” (139). 

In her analysis of local, organic food, often presented in juxtaposition to global, industrial food as the answer to the food system’s shortcomings, she notes that social justice initiatives promoting more localized food sources still problematize fat bodies under the guise of healthism. Furthermore, “local food has come to stand in for social justice issues absent in organics, as if being in close proximity to one another makes people care more… This association conflates geographic scale to justice, however… suffice it to say that there is nothing inherent about proximity that makes farmers pay their workers more, makes food more affordable, makes profits stay in the region, or allows citizens to participate meaningfully in decision making about food” (150). She notes that most local, organic advocates argue that “injustice is unequal access to high-quality food rather than, say, disparities in wages, employment, or working conditions as they apply to health and safety— or exposure to toxic chemicals” (161), and thus skirt the root of the problem. In doing so, these food justice endeavors not addressing the policy and regulatory issues giving rise to inequality, and are instead offering alternatives only accessible to the wealthy. Worse, she notes, is that this mis-recognition of the problem leads to what she calls “civilizing missions” (157) where food justice organizations emphasizing local, organic foods enter into marginalized, food-insecure communities with the mission to “educate” and encourage residents to eat and behave more like themselves.

Near the end of the book, Guthman invokes social theorists Karl Marx and David Harvey in her examination of the role of capitalism in building the current food system. She applies Harvey’s “spatial fix” analysis to the current situation of over-accumulation and excess in the country (165), arguing that our bodies have been forced into the next iteration of “spatial fix” to economic over-accumulation (180). Importantly, she highlights the trifold consequences of this “accumulation by dispossession” in the food system and how it manifests in our bodies. “Fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails super-exploitation of the labor force in its production, it provides cheap food to support low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agricultural economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable” (174). In this way, Guthman powerfully demonstrates that efforts that aim to change in the food system by bolstering the “alternative” food system, efforts that work within instead of against the current exploitative, capitalist system, simply do not address these systemic inequalities.

It is difficult to overstate the value of Guthman’s analysis in all realms of food scholarship and food justice work. Weighing In is a pivotal work, challenging powerful assumptions about health and weight that have shaped not only a generation of policy but also several waves of grassroots activism. Nutritionists would benefit from reading her chapter on the shortcomings of the energy-balance theory in explaining weight gain. Policy advocates would benefit from her chapter on farm policy, where she shifts attention away from agricultural subsidies and towards more pervasive yet less visible forms of subsidizing food, like extractive labor practices on farms. Activists would benefit from her discussion of obesogenic neighborhoods and the problematic power differentials inherent in initiatives pushing local, organic food as the solution to health problems. Food researchers, restaurant owners, healthcare providers, city planners, chronic dieters, and food service workers would all stand to benefit from her characterization of the food system and the root of its most elusive problems.

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