Ties Between Obesity and Neo-Liberalism

This blog has been badly neglected the past two months… but here is a short post with some information I found interesting…

Last week, I attended a symposium on migrant rights at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, where I am a student. The first presenter, Gerardo Otero (a professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver) spoke about  the relationship between migration and food production.  During his lecture, Otero described a research finding that captured my interest (and relates to some of my earlier posts about food justice ).

The finding was this: countries that have embraced neo-liberalism the most have the highest rates of obesity.

If you look at a recent list of countries with the highest percentages of obesity you will find that nations with strong neo-liberal tendencies (the U.S., U.K., Australia, Mexico, Canada) top the list. In contrast, developed nations that endorse other models of capitalism have much lower rates of obesity. For example, in Japan (a state-led capitalist model) only 3% of the population is obese (compare to 34% of the population in the U.S.) . In northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands (where socially conscious forms of capitalism dominate), rates of obesity hover around 10%.

While Otero admits that more research needs to be done in order to fully understand the relationship between Neo-liberalism and capitalism, there is a clear correlation between the two. Otero hypothesizes that Neo-liberal practices (primarily cutting labor costs through any means possible) have the effect of reducing the quality of our food.

Otero’s hypothesis reminded me of Michael Pollan’s book Ominvore’s Dilemma (which I’ve also referenced in earlier posts). Pollan talks about the way that food companies  have sought to maximize profits by increasing portion sizes (i.e. selling only larger bags of chips and charging more for them) and by using cheaper ingredients (Pollan provides examples of how many packaged food items contain ingredients derived from corn, our cheapest and most abundant food source). Put simply, the food industry is profiting at the expense of our health. I think one could make the argument that the government is subsidizing this process when you consider how many tax dollars are spent treating heart disease and other obesity-related diseases.

The history of American corporations is loaded with examples of poor moral decision making. Unfortunately, it seems that maximizing profits and “doing the right thing” don’t always go together. Personally, I find it worrisome that the (presumably) decent people working in the food industry can make decisions which expand profits at the cost of human health. The obesity epidemic isn’t here simply because Americans spend too much time watching TV or eating fast food. I believe there is a real link between our society’s health and our society’s capacity for moral decision making.

A classmate recently told me that the Harvard Business School has decided to place a new emphasis on ethics– as a result of the recent economic downfall. I think this is a good start– business students should be trained to consider the real (if distant) effects their companies will have on both workers and consumers.

    • marion
    • June 15th, 2011

    These comments are of great interest. Obesity is a matter of major public health concern. In the US, 33% of the population is overweight and another 33% is obese and this carries an enormous impact on the overall health of these individuals, and concomitant major budgetary issues. Furthermore, results from the 2007- 2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that an estimated 16.9% of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years are obese.

    In some underdeveloped countries in South America, malnutrition used to be a major health problem in infants and children, and in recent decades, malnutrition has been replaced by obesity with its attending complications. Strong preventative measures need to be implemented to address these significant issues.


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