The Politics of Obesity


Obesity has Social and Political Causes


By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall


In the US, the most overweight country in the world, rates of obesity have doubled since 1980. Sixty-six percent of Americans over 20 are overweight, with half of them qualifying as obese. Seventeen percent of American children are obese. The corporate media – and much of the medical establishment – would have us believe that obesity is caused by poor self-control and bad lifestyle choices. This attitude has led to a growing call for a “fat tax” to penalize naughty fat people who can’t control themselves.

As Americans, it’s part of our conditioning to see social problems as the result of individual shortcomings. This stems from a subtle form of indoctrination designed to disempower us and keep us separate and passive. It’s nonsensical to blame individuals for a condition afflicting a broad cross section of society. Social problems always have political and social causes. Although we have yet to identify all the responsible factors, the only way to treat the obesity epidemic is to identify and address these political and social causes.

Individualized Treatment Doesn’t Work

In the vast majority of cases, individual, case-by-case treatment of obesity doesn’t work. Even bariatric surgery (stomach stapling or similar surgery) doesn’t work in 100% of patients. Most doctors who try to help patients with weight issues are struck that obesity appears to have a strong physical component, like alcohol or drug addiction. Until recently, however, pinpointing a population-wide physical cause has been elusive.

How Obesity Differs from Other Epidemics

Unlike most epidemics, obesity is more prevalent in industrialized countries than the developing world. The circumstances that contribute to obesity must also meet the following criteria:

  1. The causative agent(s) or condition(s) has doubled in prevalence since the 1980s.
  2. The causative agent(s) or condition(s) clusters in families.
  3. The causative agent(s) or condition(s) exerts some effect across all income levels, while disproportionately affecting low income, disadvantaged groups.
Why Obesity Isn’t Genetic

Owing to obesity’s tendency to cluster in families, scientists have been searching for decades for a genetic cause. However except in places like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and Iraq, where the population has been fried with mega doses of nuclear radiation, genetic conditions don’t cause epidemics. Genetic illnesses increase at the same rate as population. They also tend to be equally prevalent in industrialized and developing countries.

It’s Not Caused by Junk Food, Either

Owing to the greater prevalence of obesity in low income groups, there has been a strong tendency to blame the media messaging that urges all residents of the developed world to consume high fat, high sugar foods. The argument goes that disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected by corporate advertising owing to epigenetic* influences, the crazy US food subsidy system that makes junk food cheaper than healthy food, and the growth of “food ghettos”** in major US cities.

This thinking gained a lot of traction about a decade ago with the identification of “metabolic syndrome,” which is also known as insulin resistance. Numerous studies link insulin resistance to “epigenetic” effects, i.e. events that occur during pregnancy and the first year of life. Links have been found between low socioeconomic status and high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy. This, in turn, can permanently alter the way an individual utilizes insulin in regulating blood sugar.

Unfortunately epigenetically-induced insulin resistance and food ghettos don’t explain the rapid spread of obesity to middle and income Americans. Nor the doubling of obesity rates in the past 30 years. I, like most other Americans, have been bombarded with advertising pressuring me to consume high fat sugary snacks as far back as the early sixties. It isn’t logical that this corporate brainwashing would take 20 years to manifest an effect.

The Microbiota and Dysbiosis

In the past five years, new research into intestinal bacteria has finally uncovered a possible “social” cause for the obesity epidemic. The human intestine is colonized by about 1,000 different bacteria, who help digest foods, regulate gut development, regulate immunity and produce essential hormones and vitamins.

The discovery that finally unlocked this riddle came from studies showing a direct link between dysbiosis (i.e. “unhealthy” intestinal bacteria) and the development of insulin resistance. Then other studies revealed that the “microbiota” (our intestinal bacteria) doesn’t recover after antibiotic exposure. In fact, repeated antibiotic exposure encourages the growth of “inflammatory bacteria.” These unhealthy bacteria release an inflammatory peptide known as endotoxin, which causes inflammatory damage in the brain’s appetite center.

While still unproven, this hypothesis meets all the causation criteria laid out above. Even more exciting, it also offers a potential explanation why cancer, chronic degenerative diseases (like arthritis and multiple sclerosis), and autoimmune diseases (like lupus) are also more common in industrialized countries than the developed world. As well as playing a critical rule in immunity, dysbiosis

  1. Is more prevalent in the US than anywhere else, owing to the mass exposure of Americans to antibiotics.
  2. Has doubled in prevalence since the 1980s, roughly corresponding to comparable increases in antibiotic exposure. This is thanks to the Big Pharma-controlled medical system, a Food Inc that feeds massive amounts of antibiotics to livestock, and antibiotic markers Monsanto inserts into genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  3. Clusters in families. Children acquire their microbiota from their mothers, during their passage through the birth canal and through breast feeding.
  4. Occurs at all income levels but is more prevalent in low income groups, due to epigenetic influences and dietary factors.
Research into Treatment

The April issue of Mother Jones has a great article summarizing some of this research. And even more exciting studies showing that diets rich in certain fermented foods can  bring about weight loss by restoring bacterial balance in the intestine.

*Epigenetics refers to alterations in gene expression (i.e. the protein enzymes genes produce) based on environmental influences during pregnancy and early development.

**Food ghettos refer to the wholesale abandonment of inner cities by major supermarket chains, making it virtually impossible for residents to access fresh fruits and vegetables.
 photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc


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Dr. Bramhall is a retired American child and adolescent psychiatrist, activist and political refugee in New Zealand. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. She has also published two young adult novels about political activism: The Battle for Tomorrow: A Fable View All Books by Dr. Bramhall >>> She is involved in the national leadership of the New Zealand Green Party and has a political blog at