The repeating question: Is obesity a disease?

I agree with Food Network talker Alton Brown, who tells Ana Marie Cox in the Sunday New York Times:

“I do think that most of us need to actually take responsibility for what we’re putting in our mouths. Obesity is not a disease.” And: "The second that our society starts thinking that shoveling Big Macs into our face is a disease then we’re done, we’re done as a culture.”

I learned about the interview via excerpts in Salon, after my friend Steve Markscheid sent a link.

Alton Brown, Food Network personality

Obesity is a condition that, in some, is the result of a disease. But it’s not the disease itself — that would be food addiction. That fact kept me in a very large cycle of gain-lose for decades, to the tune of hundreds of pounds. Addressing the condition, without addressing the cause, is a path to failure and frustration.

Even addicts — I’m an addict in recovery for almost a quarter century — need to take responsibility. But unlike non-addicts, a great deal more focus, commitment, and especially support are required to overcome what isn’t mere sloth, but a biochemical sensitivity to substances and behaviors that others don’t experience, and therefore don’t credit.

Meanwhile, responsibility isn’t good only for the eater. Big Food pumps out billions in sales and even profits, and spends billions in marketing and in research, to know how better to hook consumers on its heavily processed concoctions. How they manipulate sugar cane, sugar beets, and fruit is not dissimilar to how heroin and cocaine processors manipulate poppies and coca: mechanically and/or chemically remove the dull parts, such as the fiber, and intensify what’s left into a whitish powder.

Big Food compounds its perfidy by blaming its customers for overindulging, as if they didn't engineer the substance to be as sexy as possible, spend billions to entice users, and fight with sharpest blades to prevent any bars to selling. No one could expect Big Food to act otherwise; its bread is buttered only by higher and higher sales.

Does anyone not see the disconnect between an industry dependent on selling more food, and a world whose need for food rises only as the population does? It will not act with the responsibility that Brown prescribes, unless it is required to by public interest. 

Please note: Even under those circumstances, individuals still must act responsibly if they’re winners of the biological-sensitivity lottery. But far fewer would be exposed to the triggers, and we would be far fitter, far happier, and far wealthier as a nation.

For responsibility to be effective in this problem, we will need more than just individuals to exercise it.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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