The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

By Michael Gard; Jan Wright | Go to book overview
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The ghost of a machine

At this point it may be tempting to think that the occasional excesses that media coverage inevitably entails are one thing, but that the science of the 'obesity epidemic' is quite another. However, it is not difficult to find examples from the scientific literature in which the current situation is similarly described in cataclysmic terms. Seidell (2000), for example, claims that there may be one billion overweight and obese people in the world: that is, one billion people who are sufficiently fat to be classified as 'diseased' on account of their body weight alone. The situation is regularly described as an obesity 'crisis' (Beebe 2002; Deckelbaum and Williams 2001; Ebbeling et al. 2002; Klein 2004), requiring a 'war on obesity' (Friedman 2003; Klein 1999).

As we saw in the quote from Bouchard and Blair (1999) in Chapter 1, the diagnosis of too much food and not enough physical activity is generally taken to be self-evident in the scientific literature. In fact, it seems that many researchers in this area have moved past asking why the 'obesity epidemic' is happening to the development of strategies to reduce the number of calories people consume and to increase the calories they expend (e.g. Hill and Peters 1998; Peters et al. 2002). Chakravarthy and Booth (2003:731) claim that by 'watching less TV, eating fewer higher-calorie fast foods, and being more physically active the current rising physical inactivity and obesity epidemics can be thwarted'.

At the risk of oversimplification, this assessment seems to be saying that 'we know that overweight and obesity are serious diseases, we know what causes them, and, in broad terms, we know what to do about them'. Over the course of this and the following three chapters, we offer an alternative perspective. We survey the scientific literature and argue that there are, in fact, many aspects of both the causes and consequences of overweight and obesity, which are poorly understood. We ask, if it is the case that the causes and consequences of overweight and obesity are unclear; how is it possible to speak about a present crisis and a future calamity with the air of certainty which characterizes much of the scientific literature? Is it possible that the apparent uniformity of the view that too much food and not enough physical activity has produced a global health crisis has more to do with cultural attitudes towards fatness than the weight of scientific evidence? Chakravarthy and Booth (2003:731) describe the current sedentary and obesity-promoting lives which (they allege) Westerners increasingly live as 'sedentary death syndrome'. Elsewhere, however, Bouchard and Blair claim that:


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