Monday, May 22, 2006


I've written a lot about the politics of the way food is discussed, but very little about the politics of food. I think to understand 'the obesity epidemic' you have to understand the politics of food as well as the politics of the discourse around food (yes I used the word 'discourse' in my first paragraph - I imagine it'll be a long post).

So far when I've been talking about the discourse around food I've generally been talking about individual foods and how they're discussed. In this post I'm going to talk more about diet. Just to be clear in this post when I say 'diet' I don't mean weight-loss diets, but the sum total of what we eat from week to week.

There are a number of assumptions that underpin 'the obesity epidemic' - one of which is that our diet has got worse over the last 50 years. Some people, such as the chair of Fight the Obesity Epdiemic, believe that our diet has got worse since the depression, since in the 1930s people grew their own vegetables. But I'll give most people who promote 'the obesity epidemic' the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don't think we'd be in better health if we died of starvation.

It was a reasonably standard article on obesity in the Dominon Post that made me question this assumption:

It's not difficult to see why obesity is becoming such a problem. We no longer walk or exercise nearly as much as we used to and our eating habits have deteriorated
. What did people eat in New Zealand 50 years ago? Would it past muster with those who hark back to a golden era.

To answer this question I turned to Towards Tomorrow: A Guide for the New Zealand Homemaker, an economics school text book published in 1968. Here's what it had to say about fat:
The fats used in the average New zealand diet are butter, bacon fat, dripping and lard.
and meat:
Meat is the protein food most used in New Zealand and we are among the world's greatest meat eaters because our country is so agriculturally rich. Many overseas visitors are surprised to find that meat is often included in every meal of the day.

Poultry has grown in popularity over recent years. Like meat it is a complete protein, but it is mroe expensive than meat. (There is alarm at the use of hormones to develop birds rapidly because these hormones could affect humans.) Poultry is a delicious 'special occasion' food.
So 40 years ago the New Zealand diet included red meat 2-3 times a day, and most cooking was done in animal fat.

My first thought was that either people are lying to us about what a healthy diet is, or our diet has improved considerably since the 1960s.* My second thought is that the main problem is that it's ridiculous to talk about 'the New Zealand' diet. For discussion of diet to have any meaning at all, we have to look at class, and how the amount of money you have has effects your diet.

In our society we don't make food for nutritional value, we don't make food to nuture us, we don't make food to promote long life and we don't make food to fee ourselves.

We make food to make a profit.

Every decision those producing food make about what goes into that food (starting way back at the genetically modified soy-bean seed, to when soya-oil ends up in a low-fat biscuit substitute) is made based on the need to make a profit. Nutrition is generally only a consideration into whether or not food makes a profit if the government has legislated about the nutirtional content of certain foods, or if it can help sell the product (more on this later).

There have been changes in food over the last 50 years, and those changes have been driven by the food industry's requirement to make a profit. I may be wrong, and I'm happy to discuss this with people who know more (or less) than me, but I think the most important change has been that calories have gotten cheaper, but other nutrition have gotten more expensive.** To give a really basic example, if the amount of vitamin C in an apple has halved, then even if apples have gone down in price a 1/3 vitamin C is more expensive.

That's why I hate Sue Kedgeley, and the Greens soft-drink charge so much. The solution to the change in our diets can't be to try and drive the price of calories back up, rather than try and bring the price of nutrients down.

This is a long, and kind of rambling post. I had a lot more to say, but this is a start, I'll try and expand on some of these posts in the next few days. I refuse to join into the current discourse on food for a reason, because I think it misses the problem. I think everytime we talk about 'healthy' food we're just creating another way they can sell things for us.

I think the any problems with food in our society can only be solved if we go attack the cause of the problem. The profit motive.

*This may or may not be true, I'm not hear to police individual debates on the value of different sorts of food. On an individual level I suspect part of the problem with talking about the dangers of one item of food in your diet, as it's not what you take out of your diet, but what you substitute it with, that makes a difference to your longevity and quality of life.

**I should go to bed, but there's a whole lot more detail in what this means, I'll write it up tomorrow.


  1. You are right that there are great dangers in focusing on an "item" in your diet - the more we research the more the recommendations sway back towards "a bit of everything".

    Eggs are the perfect example - started as a super food, then condemned because of their cholesterol, then advocted because its the "right" cholesterol, etc.

    We need a varied diet to get all the vitamins and minerals we need, and we need a reasonable amount of exercise to burn energy and keep our body in shape. Any new "super food" will be considered bad soon, and any "bad food" is only bad in excess.

  2. There has been an increase in obesity but I think the causes are far more complex than the fact food is sold for profit. I think it has a lot to do with more sedentary patterns of work. Eating meat three times a day probably wasn't such a big deal if you then went out and did hard manual labour. Cars and longer working hours probably also play a part in increased sedentary-ness. The commodification of active leisure is probably also significant. Increased stress might play a part too. A lot of people eat as a stress response and there is probably more food available now to a broader cross section than there might have been historically.

    I read a book (by Greg Critser I think) suggesting the increasing addition of corn syrup to food is probably a contributor to the problem in the US anyway.

    With children - safety concerns which make parents keep them inside rather than outside actively playing probably play a role.

    And there is definitely a class factor at work too and there is a strange inversion in current times in that obesity is associated with poverty and thiness with wealth.

  3. PS. Incidentally from a medical perspective obesity is significant contributing factor to a wide range of health problems- cancers, diabetes, heart failure. So I don't really see a problem with stating that personally. It seems like it is splitting hairs to say the problem isn't obesity but lack of exercise or bad food.

    And it seems to me that the argument (I think) you were making in your previous post could just as easily be inverted. The problem isn't the fact that an obesity epidemic has been identified- the problem is that fact is being misused by people with a financial interest but that doesn't mean there is not a genuine health problem.

    But I think I agree with the tenor of your thoughts at least in some respects. I loathe the organic food movement with all my heart. To me it is just one more example of middle class food fetishism and branding and when someone seems to imply that the fact they eat organic food (and all food is actually organic or it would not be food)means they are somehow morally superior I just have to shake my head in disbelief.

  4. "PS. Incidentally from a medical perspective obesity is significant contributing factor to a wide range of health problems- cancers, diabetes, heart failure. So I don't really see a problem with stating that personally. It seems like it is splitting hairs to say the problem isn't obesity but lack of exercise or bad food."

    The problem is that this hasn't been proven. Correlations have been shown, but there really isn't evidence.

    I don't fidn the arguments in favour of the the 'we've got more inactive' assumption entirely convincing either. At least some parts of that argument seem very ahistorical. There may be more cars than there were thirty years ago, but we've been suburbanised for quite some time. I'm also not sure how much change there has been in the activity level of paid employment.

    I dont' think middle class jobs have got any less active, they've always been reasonbly inactive. For working class jobs service and retail jobs have grown and they both involve standing at a minimum, and usually activity on top of that. Factory jobs have shrunk, and some of those would have been active, but others weren't.

    I think your point about leisure activity is a good one (and again points out the ridiculousness of talking about changes to New Zealanders activity level without look at class. I would imagine that the rise of gyms has seen executives get more active, not less active). I would say the other main explanation in activity levels

  5. "PS. Incidentally from a medical perspective obesity is significant contributing factor to a wide range of health problems- cancers, diabetes, heart failure. So I don't really see a problem with stating that personally. It seems like it is splitting hairs to say the problem isn't obesity but lack of exercise or bad food."

    Indeed, as maia said above, correlation is not causation, and it's quite possible that while there's a correlation between these diseases and obesity, it could well be that the disease and the obesity have a common cause, such as poor nutrition, genetic factors etc. rather than being directly caused by obesity.

    Of course it is most likely that a large number of factors contribute to both a person becoming obese and becoming ill, and it is almost certainly not as simple as 'being fat will kill you'.

    You might think it's splitting hairs to make that distinction, but I don't agree, and I think that attitude can be a dangerous one - in that people are getting the message that thin==healthy, hence if they're already thin they don't need to worry about their health, diet or lifestyle in general. Or that if they are fat, the best thing to do is to lose weight by any means possible, however harmful, rather than improving their lifestyle by eating well and exercising more, which would be better for them and might incidentally result in them losing weight.

    There is also significant evidence that weight-loss diets do not work in the long term and can be harmful rather than helpful to the person's health. It seems much more sensible to me to take the focus away from weight.

  6. I just noticed maia said most of this more concisely in her previous post. Sorry to be repetitive!

  7. I have my grandmother's 1945 Plunket book which has recipies and a meal plan. It's recommendations are plenty of clean milk (specifically pasturised or scalded at home to stop TB), fresh vegetables (with diversity to get a range of vitamins and minerals) both cooked and raw. plenty of fruit, salads, 3 to 4 eggs per week per person, meat once a day, esp. liver for iron, plenty of unrefined cereals, eg. wholemeal bread, unpolished rice, wheat germ in your porridge, but not to much roughage for small children. Don't be heavy-handed with the sugar spoon. Hold back on lollies because it's bad for teeth. Iodised salt - always check with the grocer to make sure it is iodised. No fried foods for children, and only a small amount of fat in the diet.

    Oh and lashings of cod liver oil!

    A sample menu:

    On rising: orange drink or water grapefruit or orange, porridge and milk, toast with butter and honey, 6 ounces milk, piece of raw apple

    10am: drink of water, and half an apple

    Dinner: Scrunch (crunchy clow baked piece of bread), chicken or rabbit, potato, spinach, beans or turnips, light steamed fruit pudding, milk 6 ounces, piece of fruit

    2:30pm: milk, 5-6 ounces, piece of apple

    Tea: lightly boiled egg, marmite and lettuce sandwiches on wholemeal bread, home made cookie, milk 6 ounces, piece of apple

  8. muerk that's really interesting, and it shows the stupidity of talking about the past as if it was homogenous.

    I'm assuming this is a war-time plunket book (although it's possible they didn't redo the previous plunket books, but I imagine they would have). Of course that would be a drastically different diet from 10 years before (depression) or 10 years later (propserity).