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Rethinking Food Deserts and the Causes of Obesity

March 25, 2013


Julie Guthman's Weighing In

Julie Guthman’s Weighing In

Julie Guthman, professor of social sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, was on a guest speaker on my campus last week. Her talk, which drew on her most recent book, Weighing In: Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism, provided much food for thought.

At its heart, Guthman’s work asserts that our understanding of “food deserts” at the intersection between poverty and obesity in the United States is misguided. While there is a clear correlation between poverty and obesity, Guthman argues that the causality here is not as clear as many assert. While most analyses poverty leads to the creation of food deserts which facilitate obesity, Guthman argues that the poor are more likely to live in neighborhoods with low property values that are also attractive to cheap fast food restaurants. In short, Guthman places both obesity and food deserts as the outcome of capitalism, rather than asserting that food deserts cause obesity.

The question that obviously follows is: What then caused the sharp increase in obesity in the United States over the past twenty years? Here is where Guthman’s work is becomes particularly interesting. For Guthman, the root cause of obesity in the United States does not rest with food choices but with environmental toxins. You’ll have to read her book to get a full sense of the argument, but suffice it to say that she raises some interesting points, and while not fully convinced, the argument is persuasive enough to give me pause. The strength of her framework is reinforced by her ability to explain (a) why the increase in obesity rates have slowed over the past decade; and (b) why the number of overweight individuals has remained relatively stable over time, despite sharp increases in the rates of obesity.

Trends in Obesity and Overweight in the United States

Trends in Obesity and Overweight in the United States

Even more to the point, Guthman’s analysis of the discourse of obesity provides a strong framework for making sense of the “blame and shame” associated with mainstream analyses of obesity in the United States. Such a framework, which typically maintains that obesity is the result of poor individual choices and an unwillingness to work hard, and that if overweight individuals simply worked harder, they would lose weight, echoes a framing of the poor as unwilling to work hard.

In short, there’s much to think about here, and I’m looking forward to engaging with Guthman’s latest book in my future research.

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