Thanksgiving 2012: How Not to Talk About Holiday Food and Our National Obesity Problem

This article is everything that's wrong with the way we talk about obesity.

That's a tricky argument to make because Cameron gets a lot right. He is correct that Thanksgiving does not cause obesity. He is further true that dieting has a low success rate. Truer still is the maxim that everything is good in moderation, even moderation. And certainly, Cameron is right that personal responsibility is important in managing one's weight. It is also the case that two plus two equals four. To approach the issue of obesity with an appeal to the self-evident obviousness of common sense is to reinforce the thinking that got us here in the first place.

First, I scoured Google looking for the folks this article is in dialogue with. No luck — the only articles of relevance I could find gave ideas and personal narratives for eating healthy on Thanksgiving. The article linked at the end of his first paragraph seems written by a person who hardly represents “health reporting.” Nobody is arguing that Thanksgiving causes obesity, and yet that is a proposition important enough to come out swinging against all those who are forcing us to never overeat, “blaming holiday indulgence” for a worldwide epidemic. This straw man is bursting from his clothes.

So why write an article like so? Perhaps to link three of your own articles in the process. All I can tell you from reading Cameron's work is that neither Halloween nor soda nor Thanksgiving are the Number One cause of obesity. Insofar as Cameron is a science writer, at least he has a consistent beat. I can't wait for him to tell me next what isn't the lead cause of obesity.

But I'm wading too deeply into ad hominem waters, which is unfair to Cameron and useless to the larger discussion. The problem is not the author of this article; he has good intentions, as do most writing to the larger public on issues of public health. The real problem here, the one at the outset, is the way we talk about obesity. Articles like that are produced by a long-running discourse wrought of moralisms and common nonsense. At the core of this discourse are some deeply held assumptions about the cause, role and proposed solutions to the obesity epidemic. Let me do my best to capture that sentiment in words:

Obesity is chiefly caused by lack of individual responsibility. People's biological mechanisms are by and large the same, so we all had the choice to put on weight. The thinner folks of our population have exercised principle of moderation to sustain the body they have now. Therefore, those who are fat can similarly choose to be thin, and then bring this choice to reality by simply eating less and exercising more. Those who are fat have a moral imperative to lose weight.

This is a simple picture, a narrative that gives us thin folk moral high-ground and control over an otherwise scary labyrinth of conflicting studies and theories, inert policies and uncomfortable realizations about the treatment of fat people. It's harder to talk about the way in which differing body types, upbringings and metabolisms make it nearly impossible to legislate a one-size-fits-all obesity policy. Or about how most obesity policy today is aimed at preventing obesity out of existence, not working with those who are obese and overweight. Or the well-documented history of employment and medical bias against fat people.

And so this brings us to the holidays. No, Thanksgiving does not cause obesity. But maybe we ought consider that the same conditions that make Thanksgiving what it is complicate our ability to offer a consistent and clear solution on obesity.

In response to the last major public health crisis it was challenging, but ultimately doable, to shift public sentiment away from cigarettes and cigarette companies. Indeed, smoking even fit the simple narrative above perfectly. But you can't hope for the same sea change with food. That food is suspended in this constellation of social rituals and relationships means that it's not so easy to say obesity is bad, so overeating is bad, but on this day it's okay. To implore that the obese need to rein in their lifestyle and get more active when the rest of society is told to relax with their families sends mix messages, to say the least.

I would know. Every year between the end of elementary school and the first year of high school I was considered obese. When I was younger, it didn't quite make sense to me why I was putting on so much weight when my peers of similar appetite were rail thin. That confusion soon gave way to a decade-long series of failed attempts to lose weight. I didn't know why I was obese, but it was clear to me (even at 10) that it was my fault and so my responsibility to lose the weight.

When I got to college, I managed to lose a hundred pounds. Did I have some stroke of insight that unlocked some massive willpower? No, I lived next door to the campus gym, I had to bike to every class, and I was living in a social environment (the dorms) too new for me to have a fixed identity as an obese person who needed to finally lose weight. That said, I don't credit all of my success to a change in environment. But my willpower of years past was meaningless until I found an accommodating set of circumstances to work with.

It's still weird to do Thanksgiving. Studies that show food addiction is not unlike drug addiction agree with my personal experience. On holidays like this I'm usually on red alert, acting with palpable caution to not trigger some momentum of overeating. It seems to be the case to me that other people who are thin do not have to deal with this neurosis. Even so, I don't think the holidays should be canceled. A more precise solution is needed to tackle a more complex problem for a rising population in our society. But let's have that discussion instead of one that perpetuates the the tried and unhelpful way we currently talk about obesity.  

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Rajiv Narayan

I'm currently a contributing curator at Upworthy and a grad student at the University of Oxford, where I study Medical Anthropology. In the last year I was an Associate at the healthcare information firm Close Concerns, where I covered research, drug, and policy developments in obesity and public health. Before that I was a Research Assistant at Social Policy Research Associates. And not too long before that I was finishing my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, where I was very privileged to be a Regents Scholar and graduate Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in a self-designed major. In college I was a 2010 Young People For fellow and the Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. At various points over the last 4 years I've worked on an urban farm in Milwaukee, interned at the California State Assembly, and taught classes on the Social Theory of Eating Disorders at UC Davis. On the academic side, I researched obesity legislation in Argentina, food stamps in California, the racial dynamics of obesity policy in Southern States, and fat acceptance activism in California.

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