- Editorial Note
We likely do not need to convince readers of this journal that “obesity” is a topic of great contemporary importance.1 Claims about the “rapidly growing” prevalence of overweight and obese people worldwide (World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Obesity 2000), the threat that obesity poses to individuals’ and especially children’s health (Mauro et al. 2008, 173; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014a; World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Obesity 2000; World Health Organization 2014; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014c), and the “enormous economic burden” that overweight and obese people place on healthcare systems and governments (Mauro et al. 2008, 173; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014b) are ubiquitous and rarely publicly disputed. Here are a few “obesity facts” regularly invoked by US sources:
• more than 1/3 of American adults are obese(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014b);
• the rate of obesity in American children has doubled in the past thirty years, and for adolescents, has quadrupled (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014c);
• health problems associated with overweight and obesity include: “Coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, Cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon), Hypertension (high blood pressure), Dyslipidemia (for example, high total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides); Stroke; Liver and Gallbladder disease, Sleep apnea and respiratory problems, Osteoarthritis (a degeneration of cartilage and its underlying bone within a joint), Gynecological problems (abnormal menses, infertility)” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012a);
• the medical costs of obesity in the United States “were as high as $147 billion in 2008” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011; Finkelstein et al. 2009).
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) succinctly puts it: “Obesity is common, serious, and costly” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2014b). [End Page vii]
These facts have motivated widespread, intensive mobilization and allocation of human resources and money in North America and internationally. Billions of dollars and countless hours of work are dedicated to “anti-obesity” interventions targeting both international and individual bodies, states and nations, cities and classrooms. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a “Global Action Plan” to “halt obesity rates” world-wide (World Health Organization 2014). In the US, national and state level programs and policies have been instituted to take “junk food” out of schools, increase physical education requirements, and encourage mothers to breastfeed (Kirkland 2011; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012b; White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity 2010). States have removed obese children from their families, their fatness taken as a sign of parental neglect or abuse (Newcome 2011; Kirkland 2011). Whole cities have adopted weight loss projects (“This City Is Going on a Diet: About” 2011; “Jump N2 Shape: About Us” 2013). Research on fat and weight-loss technologies proliferate, paid for by both government and private interests,2 and the diet industry continues to make enormous profits (Bacon and Aphramor 2011; ABC News Staff 2012).
Given the tremendous resources employed, diverse institutional involvement, multiple levels of intervention, and ostensibly high stakes, it is unsurprising that the response to the “obesity epidemic” raises complex scientific and normative questions. And debates extend much further than the best weight-loss methods, the real causes of obesity, and whether it’s most effective for public policy to target individuals or “obesogenic” environments (Swinburn, Egger, and Raza 1999). Critics from the sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities have begun to challenge some of the basic assumptions behind obesity research and policy, even calling into question the oft-cited “facts” mentioned above. Let us briefly consider three such critiques, aimed at 1) the effectiveness of weight-loss focused policies, 2) the empirical claim that obesity is “common, serious, and costly,” and 3) the ethics of the “war on obesity” in general.
First, critics have raised doubts that interventions focused on weight-loss are efficient and effective means to improve public health. Prominent obesity researchers admit that significant long-term weight-loss strategies are usually unsuccessful, and even moderate long-term reductions in weight—something only a minute percentage [End Page viii] of people are able to achieve—are difficult to sustain (Mauro et al. 2008, 173). In fact, conclusive scientific...