When Does This End? Obesity and Corporate Food Culture in America

Isaac Martinez as featured on My 600-Lb Life

I used to watch My 600-Lb Life as a kid. I don’t know why. Even 10-year-old me recognized that the show was extremely depressing. But, for whatever reason, whenever it showed up on TLC and I had nothing else to do, I stopped and watched. If you somehow haven’t heard of the show, each episode is set up the same way: the viewer is introduced to an individual typically weighing at least 600 pounds, there are segments devoted to documenting the individual’s home life (usually characterized by a lack of mobility and severe dependence on another person during their day-to-day life), and the individual meets with Dr. Now and then embarks on a weight loss journey to qualify for bariatric surgery (a surgery that limits stomach capacity to make calorie restriction easier). 

While I never watch the show now, little-me would sit and watch other people’s slow, agonizing lives until something else caught my fleeting fancy. Maybe it was a book, or maybe my mom enticed me to the kitchen table with Play-Doh. But, just like that, it was over. Show’s done. Fin.

Why is this relevant? Well, recently, I started working in Patient Transport. Which basically means that I get paid to move patients from place to place throughout the hospital. Being in a hospital is both exhilarating and enlightening. I see things I’ve never seen before, and I see things I’ve seen a million times before, in My 600-Lb Life and in real life now: bed-bound, dialysis-bound, obese patients that will likely spend the rest of their—statistically shortened—lives severely limited by their health.

I would like to inject here that I do not mean to moralize obese people. The states they find themselves in are not simply a matter of individual choice but rather a symptom of a much more serious, more endemic issue in the United States (and perhaps other neo-liberalist economies): the prioritization of corporate interests over the happiness and longevity of common people. Specifically, I am disturbed by how inactive the United States government is in fighting the obesity epidemic, an epidemic sprouting from an overabundance and over-availability of curated-to-be-addictive, unhealthy, calorie-dense foods paired with well-researched, extremely effective advertising and a lack of equally easy alternatives, all of which comes together to build a food atmosphere where only 26.4% of adults aren’t overweight or obese. And while BMI—the scale used to delineate weight categories—is most definitely a flawed measure, especially for anyone not Caucasian, it still has merits as a predictor of health outcomes.

In case you didn’t know, this is a serving of vegetables

This isn’t an issue that can be ignored. For the sake of our country’s people, our government needs to acknowledge that this isn’t a problem that will remedy itself. I could turn off My 600-Lb Life anytime I wanted to, but one cannot simply turn off and tune out a stunted life expectancy partially attributed to ever-expanding waistlines. 

There is a need for policy in the United States that prioritizes the health of individuals over the profit of corporations that lobby for pizza sauce to be considered a vegetable (and win), over the allowance of misleading health claims on packaging, and the band aid on an open wound that is the failure of nutrition labeling in the United States. 

There is a need for committed policies that grant access to affordable health foods, incorporate healthy cooking into early childhood education, and significantly decrease access to affordable unhealthy foods. Policies need to be utilized to encourage the formation of a healthy food culture that fights childhood and the resultant adulthood obesity, so that people are no longer put in a situation where they must constantly intentionally choose between instant gratification and their health.



7 thoughts on “When Does This End? Obesity and Corporate Food Culture in America

  1. As someone who previously suffered the consequences of being overweight (certainly not to the extent that compares to the TLC show but enough to have once had several health problems), this issue continues to pose itself to me as a relatively overlooked global health crisis. I do think that this may be an example in which attempts at policy implementation are actually a root cause of the issue. The history of nutritional research in our country is undoubtedly plagued with doctors and governmental bodies condoning dietary recommendations that stem from studies funded by Coca Cola, Kellogg, and other countries that care more about selling you sugar than slowly killing you. I will not go into depth on this but I highly recommend reading about how the negative affects of sugar were masked in favor of vilifying animal fats by doctors with founding influence over institutions such as the AHA (such as Ancel Keys). There is an alarming correlation between American rates of obesity/heart disease/Alzheimers/diabetes/etc and the rate at which animal fats were replaced with vegetable/seed oils between the 1880s and now. Research on the affect of such oils (comprised of polyunsaturated fat) on all-cause mortality is heavily concentrated outside the USA in places like Japan, and this makes much more sense when one notes that American organizations that push current dietary recommendations in the pursuit of “health”, such as the AHA were largely founded and funded with Crisco money and other incentivized parties. Meanwhile products like Beyond Meat and nut milks, which are nearly all canola oil, are touted as heart healthy and beneficial. It is abhorrent that the health of our nation has been sold out, and for that reason I think that it should be addressed that the attempt to inject policy, lobbying, and other attempts at governance into our own nutrition was a fatal mistake.


  2. I think you bring up many good points in your post! It would surely be one such resolution to grant access to more affordable healthy food.
    I keep thinking about how you stated, “…a much more serious, more endemic issue in the United States (and perhaps other neo-liberalist economies): the prioritization of corporate interests over the happiness and longevity of common people.”
    To practically poison people to a slow death and then capitalize on their suffering by televising it is a different kind of cruelty that is not a far cry from the way zoos function. This is in no way to liken obese people to animals, but rather to picture it in a way in which they are held captive in torment in their situation, as people simply look because it fascinates them.
    It could be argued that televising it is beneficial when it comes to pushing for a policy for healthier food access. However, given the nature of the issue of obesity itself, I do think it would work better if there is policy enacted to help those who live in food deserts. I think another policy that encourages more stores with healthier, and affordable food options to be built would prove also effective. In an idyllic world, the government would include an incentive to food companies to make their healthier goods accessible to those who are in food deserts.


  3. Hello! I really enjoyed reading your blog post, and you bring light to a very pressing issue, especially in the United States. I remember in middle school when it was standard to show everyone an obesity documentary, where they talk about these corporations and their detrimental effects on obesity in America. I think aside from the more corporate agendas regarding the obesity epidemic, I think scientific development on this front is also important to take into consideration. It is a known fact, that the transition from cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup is directly correlated to the increase in obese individuals in the United States. Fructose being the cheaper and more abundant option, companies oversee the health detriments for the sake of profits. With the presence of ingredients like corn syrup and all the bizarre ingredients on food labels – I think it is imperative for policy to address the issues presented by these items. For example, the FDA can do a better job at examining the health detriments of the foods they certify and make mass recalls for certain items. At the end of the day, if the FDA allows for the excess use of harmful ingredients, we can’t rely on these corporations to self-regulate. We need to have change from within the policies that dictate the actions of these firms.


  4. I really appreciate this blog post, which shed light on such a pressing and sensitive issue eloquently. This is a particularly interesting issue because, like so many other public health issues, it can clearly be tied back to a failure of policy, In the United States there has certainly been a failure to protect the health of citizens, stemming from a gross amount of power from food corporations and lobbyists, as you state in your blog. While this issue can so easily be connected to policy, it is quite difficult to come up with a solution. How do we fix an entire system that yields to the extremely wealthy and powerful?
    As a side note, I liked how you connected these ideas to your experience in patient transport, and I would be interested to learn more about these experiences.


  5. I really enjoyed this blog post, and wanted to thank you for turning our attention to such a glazed-over (no pun intended) issue. Something that stuck out to me was your ending sentence, where you remark that change is necessary “so that people are no longer put in a situation where they must constantly intentionally choose between instant gratification and their health.” However, I think that in some circumstances, the nature of the problem goes beyond a choice between a craving and health, and turns into a more financially-based problem. Fast food, and unhealthy/processed in general are often priced way below healthier alternatives like fresh produce and protein, which forces individuals of lower socioeconomic status (SES) to sacrifice aspects of their health in order to make ends meet. Furthering this point, resources that allow individuals to exercise their bodies, whether it be gym memberships, free time, safe neighborhoods to go for a run in, etc., are much less readily available for lower SES individuals, which puts them and their health at another systemic disadvantage. Additionally, low SES individuals are much less likely to be health-literate, meaning that in addition to these limitations imposed upon them by their condition, they may not even be aware of the scope of the negative effects that obesity incites, and they may also have a more difficult time understanding the basic nutritional and exercise science necessary to better their health. In policy making, I would hope to see measures included that would take into account these extra difficulties that low SES individuals and families must face.


  6. I really enjoyed this blog! My friends and I used to sit down every Tuesday night and watch 1000-Ib sisters, and while it was interesting because it was reality, we also were very concerned just because it is a sad thing to watch. The policy should definitely need to change because it is so important to prioritize health, but we also have to take into account food desserts. Talking to some of my friends that come from areas like that it is very hard for them to find foods that are considered “healthy” because there are so sparse. Also even if we change the policy there is no guarantee (as with everything) that people will implement that change. For example President Obama’s Task Force on Child Obesity I remember people being really upset with that. I remember not only hearing my peers complain about it, but adults being really upset with it too. Does that have to do with the political landscape? Or truly because people want to eat in order to have this instant gratification. I also think of food addictions or disorders because they are very valid and something many people struggle with on a daily basis. Should we then implement more programs in order to help combat and help people deal with that? Overall this was a super interesting and thought-provoking blog post, thank you!


  7. Hi mayoandrice, thank you for your blog post! I would say that unfortunately in America we have a culture of excess. Consumption is exalted above all else. Bigger cars, bigger houses, more clothes, more sneakers, etc. Why wouldn’t more indulgent food be a part of this? Our unique brand of exceptionalism (and, as you say, neoliberalism) contributes to the sentiment that you, an American, are free to do as much as you want of nearly anything. That societal pressures against consumption are superseded by personal freedoms. And so I think that overeating and eating indulgent junk foods is a natural continuation of that system of values. Corporatism, as you point out, only makes this problem worse. But, I do not think that targeting corporate practices alone will be enough to solve this issue. I think a larger examination of American culture of consumption and excess is necessary.


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