Julie Guthman on the obesogenic environment thesis

Julie Guthman writes,

In leaving questions of behavior untouched, however, they can easily give the impression that the environment simply acts on people in unmediated ways, as if once you find yourself living in the sprawling suburbs the fat will pile on. Surely, the idea that merely the presence of bad food makes people fat is well circulated. It is fairly explicit in Michael Pollan’s claim, “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” …Since not everyone is in fact fat, and since [Pollan and others] make great efforts to educate people to the quality of food to encourage informed decisions, they are in effect betraying their healthist sensibilities, suggesting that those who manage to exercise restraint in such environments (or avoid them altogether) must have greater disciplinary powers, taste, and knowledge. (75-76)

The passage comes in a chapter of Weighing In titled “Does your neighborhood make you fat?” which challenges the notion of the “obesogenic environment.” Many researchers and activists have argued that obesity results from lack of access to healthy food and neighborhoods  unconducive to exercise, but Guthman argues that this thesis rests on certain assumptions:

Explicitly, it assumes the energy balance model, which holds that obesity results from an excess of calories in relative to those expended. To the extent to which it black boxes questions about human behavior, specifically how humans negotiate their environments, it implicitly assumes that the environment simply acts on people, so that people are objects, not agents, in these environments. (68)

Guthman devotes a later chapter to challenging the energy balance model. In this chapter, she argues that social class needs to be a part of the conversation. She contrasts obesogenic neighborhoods with neighborhoods that promote thinness, which she terms “leptogenic” neighborhoods. She writes,

The obesogenic environment thesis, with its focus on access and proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, parks, gyms, and public transportation, leads to the conclusion that if these conditions are changed, behaviors will follow. It thus draws forth a set of interventions that are strongly supply-sided…Supply-side interventions are reasonably palatable politically and provide clarity about what to do. Accordingly, public health advocates have put a good deal of effort into soda bans in school or good neighbor agreements that ask corner liquor stores to sell fruits and vegetables, or even creating more walkable public space in new suburbs.

And those who endorse such efforts often do so in the name of combating racial and class inequality. Yet if those obesogenic environments are as inseparable from race and class as I contend they are, picking out particular features of the built environment and making them more leptogenic isn’t likely to cut it as a body-size-altering strategy–and may have unintended consequences. It effaces the problem that the very conditions and amenities that make certain places sites of “the good life” make them unobtainable to most…

Towns and cities with artistic, independent, and healthful restaurants, beautiful outdoor amenities, vibrant public spaces, and unique character are “leptogenic,” to be sure. But they are leptogenic not only because of the food choices and physical activity opportunities they offer. They are leptogenic because wealth has made them into even more pleasant (but costly places). That is because places with wealth both attract businesses to meet the food tastes of residents and generate the taxes to improve and maintain those enjoyable public spaces…

No matter what, to replicate features of the leptogenic environment to make people thin is unlikely to be efficacious…Trying to make environments more like those of the wealthy upholds an economic differentiation of urban landscape that could have perverse social justice ramifications. Already efforts to redress the supply-side problems, such as community gardens, farmers markets, and spruced-up parks, have led to gentrification, which is why people in low-income areas are beginning to reject such projects. (87-89)

In short, whereas Pollan and others see obesity arising from lack of access to good food and other environmental factors, Guthman argues that both obesity and the unhealthy environment arise from deeper problems of social class.

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4 Comments »

  1. Given the information discussed in this and the previous post, I wouldn’t say that Pollan sees obesity as arising from environmental factors alone. He may often say things that make him sound like a supporter of the obesogenic environment thesis. But, at the same time, he focuses a great deal on educating people about personal dietary choices. As Guthman notes, this would seem to betray his “healthist sensibilities”, his belief that eating healthy is a matter of personal moral choice. Pollan doesn’t think that people are simply buffeted around by their environments; rather, he thinks of them as moral agents, many of whom lack the awareness, knowledge, and moral fiber to eat healthy. At least, that’s the picture that seems to emerge from the points that you’ve raised so far.

    • Of course, whether healthism is preferable to the obesogenic environment thesis is another question.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Yeah, Guthman does seem to oversimplify a bit here, thought I can see how she’d get that from the line quoted. I suspect that her broader point about social class is an important one, though.

  2. […] us to identify the diet as the cause of the problem, which gets the chronology backward. Although Julie Guthman has argued that we need to look beyond food to understand obesity, to the extent that food is to blame, it […]

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