The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

By Michael Gard; Jan Wright | Go to book overview

4

'Modernity's scourge'

A brief history of obesity science

In his foreword to the edited volume Child and Adolescent Obesity, William H. Dietz writes:

Rarely have we had the opportunity to observe an epidemic of chronic disease occur before our eyes. The questions and challenges that the epidemic provokes provide us with an exciting and unique opportunity to shape a new field. As Winston Churchill once said: 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'

(Dietz 2002: xvii)

Although Dietz does not explicitly say when the epidemic - which has occurred 'before our eyes' - actually began, he does claim that the year 1980 is significant (2002: xv) and marks the beginning of a rapid acceleration in obesity rates. Our reading of the literature suggests that scientific opinion concurs roughly with this view, although points five or ten years before and after 1980 are mentioned. For example, Booth et al. (2003) surveyed existing childhood overweight and obesity data in Australia and found that between 1985 and 1997:

the prevalence of overweight increased by 60-70%, the prevalence of obesity trebled, and the prevalence of overweight and obesity combined doubled. Although we cannot be quite so confident about the findings for the period 1969-1985, the results do indicate that changes in the prevalence of overweight and obesity were far smaller during this 16-y period than they were for the ensuing 12 y. Our findings are generally consistent with studies conducted in the United States, Spain, and Britain.

(Booth et al. 2003:33)

As with most of his peers, Dietz blames this new epidemic of chronic disease on people's food intake and exercise habits, thus repeating the core scientific premises on which the entire field of obesity studies rests: the idea that overweight and obesity are bad for your health and that excess food intake and insufficient physical activity are the root causes of this disease.

This sense of newness is absolutely central to the construction of a crisis. If it was the case that obesity has been a problem for, say, one hundred years, it would be much more difficult to talk of a crisis or, we suspect, an 'epidemic'. This is

-68-

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The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • 1 - Science and Fatness 1
  • 2 - The War on Obesity 16
  • 3 - The Ghost of a Machine 37
  • 4 - 'Modernity's Scourge' 68
  • 5 - Fat or Fiction 86
  • 6 - The Search for a Cause 107
  • 7 - Obesity Science for the People 126
  • 8 - Feminism and the 'Obesity Epidemic' 153
  • 9 - Interrogating Expert Knowledge 168
  • 10 - Beyond Body Weight 187
  • References 191
  • Index 210
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