A critical take on Pollan’s view of obesity

I want to go a little bit out of order in my reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma to return to Pollan’s chapter called “The Consumer: A Republic of Fat.” Fascinated as I was by Pollan’s exposition of the supersizing trend, I was a bit uneasy with his treatment of obesity for reasons that I couldn’t quite put into words. It turned out that Julie Guthman, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, had already written about it. The piece, unfortunately, was published in Gastronomica, which is not freely available, but I’ll do my best to restate the key points. (UPDATE 7/16/2010: A condensed version of Guthman’s piece is available for free.)

The subject of Guthman’s piece is broader than Pollan, and includes books that “extol the virtues of the organic and the local while arguing for a commonsense, ecumenical approach to diet choices.” This includes books by Peter Singer, Jane Goodall and Marion Nestle, in addition to The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Guthman expresses strong agreement with Pollan’s criticism of American crop subsidies, but says, “in evoking obesity, Pollan turns our gaze, perhaps inadvertently, from an ethically suspect farm policy to the fat body.” She then sets out to consider “whether it is necessary for fat people to bear the weight of this argument.”

Guthman argues that it’s not really clear that there is an obesity epidemic at all. She points out that the claims of an epidemic depend on average Body Mass Index, which doesn’t distinguish between fat and lean body mass and doesn’t tell us “whether a relatively small number of people have become extremely fat, or whether many people have put on a few pounds.” She adds that we don’t understand the relationships between diet and obesity and between obesity and disease, telling us that Michael Gard and Jan Wright argue in a review of obesity research that “obesity research itself has become so entangled with moral discourses and aesthetic values that the ‘science of obesity’ can no longer speak for itself.”

Guthman then turns to the psychological effects of these books:

These popular renditions are also remarkably insensitive, and not necessarily just to those who feel themselves to be too fat. Rather, these authors seem unaware of how obesity messages work as admonishment….[S]wipes at obesity, especially coming from those who themselves have never been subject to such scrutiny or objectification, or the pain and frustration of weight loss, strikes me as naïve. Yet, entirely absent from the pages of the recent popular books is any authorial reflection on how obesity talk further stigmatizes those who are fat, or on how this social scolding might actually work at cross-purposes to health and well being.

Guthman is particularly disturbed by one claim of Pollan’s: “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat” (102). She asks, “[W]hy are Pollan, Goodall, and Nestle not fat? If junk food is so ubiquitous that it cannot be resisted, how is it that some people remain (or become) thin?” This is troubling because “[i]f junk food is everywhere and people are all naturally drawn to it, those who resist it must have heightened powers.”

I found Guthman’s piece to be a thought-provoking read, and I’d certainly recommend the full article to anybody who has access to it through an institutional subscription. With that said, I don’t know if I agree with everything in it. The point that we don’t know that much about obesity seems like a good one, particularly in light of more recent evidence (another piece that requires a subscription, sorry) that fat cells may actually be a defense against – rather than a cause of – disease. I also agree that it’s important to look at how talk stigmatizes obesity.

If there’s something I find unsatisfying about the article, it’s that I don’t quite know what to make of the question of why some people are thin. It seems to me that her argument that thin people must have “heightened powers” is exaggerated. Perhaps the difference could be explained (for example) by differences in genetics, access to healthful foods, and nutritional education. Even though Pollan doesn’t make that argument, such circumstances could be consistent with a claim that “[w]hen food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat,” so it seems like a bit of a reach for Guthman to tell us that thin people must have “heightened powers.”

I’d be very interested to get readers’ takes in the comments. What do you think?



  1. Truly Scrumptious said

    I read the quote from Guthman a little differently, but I haven’t read the whole article, so you’re free to correct me. I read it that she was saying that “heightened powers” would be the basis of Pollan’s explanation. A bit sarcastic, in other words (“well if it can’t be that, then it must be this! There’s no other possible explanation!”). Which may be that I’m putting my own style of communicating onto her words. 🙂
    Anyway, thank you for this blog.

    • Adam Merberg said

      You are right that Guthman means the “heightened powers” are the basis for Pollan’s explanation. I’m just not convinced that it’s fair to jump to the conclusion that Pollan explains it that way.

  2. […] might remember Guthman as the author of the article about Pollan’s treatment of obesity that I blogged last month. She also wrote Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, a work included in […]

  3. […] Twice before, I’ve featured the work of Julie Guthman, an associate professor in the  Community Studies  Department at UC Santa Cruz. Earlier this year, Guthman published a new book, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, which challenges much of the popular discourse in the food movement, particularly as it pertains to obesity and food justice. With chapters bearing such titles as “Whose Problem Is Obesity?” and “Will Fresh, Local, Organic Food Make You Thin?”, Guthman takes issue with many of the axioms that lie at the foundation of today’s food movement. Although there were some parts of the book that I found less than convincing, Weighing In changed the way I look at food politics. […]

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