Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dietary Regimes, Obesity, and the Tough Fix

I'm frustrated when I hear, "Gee, I know it sucks that small farmers can't make a go of it, but with today's input and capital costs you have to be big to stay in farming." That's why I really like Tony Winson's work. Faced with that assertion, he'd get to the root of it. He'd ask why the input and capital costs have increased so much, and what the returns really are for economies of scale, and what externalities are being sloughed off by large farms, and by gum, he'd have some answers. He knows that there are structural and systemic forces that are producing the agri-food system we have.

At the AFHVS conference in Missoula, I got to hear Winson present on his latest theoretical innovation - dietary regimes, building on Friedmann and McMichael's work on food regimes. Winson's thesis is that rather than just being products of idiosyncracy or cultural preference, diets are created and reproduced by specific material conditions, socio-economic-political climate, and technical developments. Okay, I'll be specific at the risk of jargon turning you off: he attributes them as well to "distinct phases of capital accumulation". But the argument still makes sense without an understanding of that.

Therefore, diets can be divided into distinct eras (regimes) based on elements of their production. For example, with the neolithic revolution, diets started to take on a class character. The second industrial diet regime, which Winson dates from 1950-1980, is probably the most apparent to us: the degradation of food intensifies with the trends of suburbanization, mass marketing, convenience foods, a car culture of fast food, women working out of the home, and a decline of farms and self-provisioning. This is not to say that those things are unequivocally bad, but that they had definite effects on shaping diet in a certain direction. They have lead today to the expansion of this diet to developing countries and a shift from state to capital as the dominating structural force. They have also lead to food that Winson describes with the absolute best use of language I have heard in a while:

 “nutritionally compromised edible commodities”.

Excuse me while I fan myself vigorously. 

The importance of framing dietary changes in terms of a dietary regimes approach is that this approach gets at what is behind these changes. And if we can get at the root of them, we can more effectively shape what is happening in a healthy way.

Here's an example. In this light, although choice of course plays a role, obesity is not merely "taking in more calories than one expends" - something one could easily choose not to do. It is a result of a complex web of factors including the aforementioned growth in mass marketing and convenience foods; the increase in sedentary work and a longer work day; the inaccessibility (due to price, location, or culinary knowledge) of healthy foods; unwalkable neighbourhoods; and even psychological factors, such as a tendency to self-medicate with food, that are socially influenced. While an individual may choose to eat unhealthy food, that choice is easier, and far more likely to be made, in the food system we have now.

Society-wide obesity cannot be solved by educating obese people about nutrition and promoting exercise. But that focus on individual responsibility and choice does "serve to shift our gaze from the social conditions that produce [obesity], to pathologizing the individual that carries the weight (literally) of our social plight. The advantage of this shift in focus is that it dilutes attention from the structural change that would be needed to actually make a difference."* And that structural change is not only difficult, but challenges some pretty powerful interests.

* Russell-Mayhew, Shelly. Eating Disorders and Obesity as Social Justice Issues. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, Volume 1, Number 1 Spring 2007.

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