Get Your Healthism Out of My Food Policy

Food policy in the US these days is increasingly dominated by healthism, and the attitude that health is a one-size-fits all issue which can be easily forced on people with enough shaming campaigns and legislation. Take, for example, the rise in interest in banning ‘bad foods’ in regions like New York, allegedly with the goal of combating the so-called obesity epidemic. Healthism, the idea that everyone has an obligation to be healthy, that being healthy is easy, that health can be easily defined and is the same for all people, is pervasive in US culture, along with the belief that it is acceptable to force your personal views about health onto others in the interest of ‘the greater good.’

Concerntrolling legislation and campaigns aimed at getting people to stop eating certain foods, though, are ineffective from a variety of perspectives, in addition to offensive. For those who think they have a right to police what other people eat and compel people to eat certain foods while avoiding others, these laws don’t even accomplish their stated aim; they seem to be more about shaming and humiliating people than anything else. They certainly don’t serve the function of creating a healthier society, just a more self-righteous and smug one filled with people who think they know best.

The question here shouldn’t be how we can stop people from eating given foods because we disapprove of them, but why they’re drawn to them, and what kinds of market forces are making them decide to prefer those foods over others. Instead of focusing on food bans, why is there so much resistance to focusing on food access? Maybe people don’t want to buy soda all the time but it’s more affordable than other beverages and meets a specific need; perhaps people would prefer salads to fast food, but have limited access. While people on the small-scale end of food justice do focus on these issues, looking at ways to get things like precut vegetables into corner stores, the policymakers don’t, and they’re the ones sending signals to society as a whole.

The message sent with a soda ban is not one of commitment to health. It’s one of targeting a specific thing as ‘bad’ and taking action against it without actually creating any meaningful change. There’s a fundamental failure of logic here, first in assuming that people are fat because they drink soda, and second in assuming that a soda ban will reduce fatness when the implication is that people become fat through laziness and overconsumption. If soda is removed from the repertoire, wouldn’t all those negligent fatties just turn to another source of ‘empty calories‘ and stay fat? They could just as easily consume sweetened juices or teas which still contain high levels of sugar and are still available, and presumably savvy markets and manufacturers are going to come up with products at low price points comparable to soda to tap into this market.

Demonising soda doesn’t get to the larger issue, so to speak. Whether you believe soda makes people fat or not, you have to admit that a holistic approach to health tends to be more effective, that diets overall don’t work and food restriction by fiat isn’t going to be very effective. If you genuinely believe that fat is a problem and you want people to change their eating habits, you need to expand their options, not limit them. You need to change the tone of the conversation and create an environment where people have more foods to choose from, not less.

Healthism is less about a genuine desire for public good and improved health as a society, and more about targeting of specific visible things under the guise of caring about people’s health. Fat is an obvious marker that cannot be avoided, and thus it’s become a common flashpoint for legislation and discussion, even though researchers freely admit that fat is complex, and it’s a lot more simple than size x is good and size y is bad. That regulators aren’t paying attention to these discussions and in some cases are willfully ignoring them is frustrating, because they’re the ones making long-term policy decisions that don’t serve anyone, not even the fatties they claim to care about.

If people genuinely believe poor health is an issue, which it is, they should start by actually looking at the causes of poor health in the US and working on systemic changes to address them. Food policy is one of the things that does need to be reevaluated and revamped in order to better support a healthy, safe, and happy population, but this isn’t the right way to go about it. And the more healthism intrudes on food policy, the harder it is going to be to create sustainable and effective policies that actually benefit the people relying on the US food system for survival.

I don’t care if people drink soda, and I certainly don’t care if they use food stamps and other government benefits to buy it. I care about whether people have nutritional education that allows them to make informed choices about their food. I care about whether people can access the foods they want and need in their communities in accessible locations, at affordable prices. I care about the fact that many households are dual-income with people working multiple jobs, who have trouble preparing meals at home without the assistance of convenience foods because there isn’t time, no matter how much people might prefer to make meals from scratch. I care about the fact that when you’re starving and not sure where your next meal is coming from, you might well opt for a high calorie meal for energy, even if it doesn’t offer the best nutrition, because your concern is immediate survival, not whether you’re going to get fat.