The Politics of Obesity

fat personTired of seeing all the weight-loss commercials on TV and the ads in magazines and newspapers? Today I was surprised to see a full-page ad for Nutrisystem in Newsweek magazine. Surprised because all those ads look so tacky and I think of Newsweek as a relatively classy publication. But then I got to thinking: what better place to put it than in a magazine whose demographics include a high number of college-educated, professional people? Because who else can afford such a weight-loss program?

Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig, another heavily-advertised weight-loss program, both work by selling you almost all the food that you’re allowed to eat every day. That way you get all the nutrients you need but your portions are controlled. Sounds great, right? Except for one thing: the cost. Oh, they make it sound like you’d be spending no more than what you normally do when you eat badly. The problem is, not many people spend as much as the program costs or can afford to spend more than they already are. These programs cost $11-$15 a day–and that’s just for one person.

Then there is the exercise factor: how many people can afford gym memberships, personal trainers and/or exercise equipment? And what if you don’t have access to running tracks or safe places to walk? Swimming is an ideal sport because it is aerobic but not hard on your joints, but affordable and accessible swimming pools are in short supply. Team sports become less common after high school and sports like tennis, golf and skiing require expensive equipment. And exercise programs on video or computer require the technology to view them.

The picture I’m trying to paint is that low-income people find it more difficult to lose weight and to keep it off. I’m fully aware that obesity is affecting all strata of our society and that income is just one of the factors that contribute to the problem. But the image of the trim soccer mom versus the fat and flabby welfare recipient isn’t all stereotyping. The soccer mom has the time and the money to devote to her own fitness. She can afford programs like Nutrisystem or Wii Fit. The working poor are often working two or more jobs or 60 hours a week just to get by, leaving little time or energy for exercise.And welfare recipients don’t have the money for programs that would give them the support they need to lose weight and become more fit.

The experts blame the individual for eating poorly and leading sedentary lifestyles.  But when money is tight, you spend it on food that is filling and that often means starches and sweets. And there are fewer opportunities for exercise now than there were even two decades ago. It may seem like we’re a nation obsessed with fitness, but it is mostly the upper classes, including professional athletes, who have the support they need to keep their weight under control. And as the gap between the rich and poor gets wider, I predict that there will be more obesity and worse health among low-income people (which of course then makes the nation’s overall incidence of obesity higher.)

Read “The Obesity Crisis: A healthy diet is often beyond the means of poor, hungry.” Since this article was written in 2004, the percentage of obese Americans has risen even more. (See this CDC–Center for Disease Control–report and this article from The Obesity Society which shows state-by-state obesity statistics.)Obesity_Map_7-11-08

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