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Mainely Tipping Points 29: A Cultural Studies Answer

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Tipping Points 29

A CULTURAL STUDIES ANSWER

In WHY WE GET FAT (2011), Gary Taubes asks a scientific question.  His answer deploys scientific data from respected scientists working with the relationship of food to human body chemistry.  To recap, overweight people develop a hormonal disorder which is caused by eating carbohydrates, especially the easily digestible, highly processed carbohydrates (white flour, sugars, grains, starchy and/or sweet vegetables, and fructose from fruits bred to be big and sweet).  This disorder causes human bodies either to trap and store food energy in fat cells, no matter the energy needs of the body, or to funnel food energy to the muscles, which makes for a lean body with lots of energy that must be exercised away.

Taubes addresses some of why the inaccurate calorie in/calorie out, or “energy,” paradigm has persisted despite a decided lack of supporting science and the existence of a growing body of contrary evidence stretching back at least sixty years.  My own discipline, Cultural Studies, would begin where Taubes often leaves off by asking who is benefitting and what structural and cultural forces are being deployed for support.   

Cultural belief systems are probably the most powerful organizing forces man has ever devised.  Taubes describes a particularly insidious cultural belief that supports the energy paradigm.  By arbitrarily deciding that obesity is not a dysfunction of the body, a path opens which allows the belief that obesity is caused by the brain —which has been culturally interpreted to be about behavior, about character, about gluttony and sloth (80-86).    

Taubes’ identifies Louis Newburgh, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, as one originator of the “head case,” or psychological, explanation for obesity.    In the 1920s, Newburgh became a nationally recognized expert on obesity, and he posited that either obese people were taught to overeat by their parents or they had a “`combination of weak will and a pleasure seeking outlook upon life’” (83). 

“Newburgh,” Taubes notes, “was preaching to a medical establishment that had been taught to revere authority figures, not question their pronouncements” (83).  Newburgh, I’d say, lived in a time when most fat people were poor people.  He was a patriarch who was preaching something that most people of his own class understood to be true:  there’s something wrong with people who are poor, and the fat ones, well, they have “perverted appetites” (82).   

Wrapped up in this psychological explanation are the intersections of class, race, and gender.  Taubes points out that the poorer one is, the fatter one is likely to be since the calories available to the poor derive from cheap carbohydrates (18).  Taubes lists many worldwide studies of poor fat populations who are, with one exception, people of color.  (The exception is Naples, Italy, right after World War II ended, when Naples was destitute.)   Within these studies, the fattest of the fat, by large percentages, are women, who, Taubes infers, are giving the best food to their families (17-32). 

Taubes demonstrates that these poor people are not lazy, that they work hard, physical jobs.  And, like the investigating scientists, Taubes concludes that both malnutrition and subnutrition coexist in these populations because traditional patterns of living have been displaced and available food is mostly highly processed carbohydrates (17-32). 

The medical community, Taubes explains, uniformly swerved in the “head case” direction until well after World War II (84).  Historically, we know that post World War II America is when industry began providing more and more processed food, particularly the highly processed vegetable oils and margarines that replaced animal fats like butter, lard, and tallow.  And, we know that obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer rates all increased.

In the 1970s, Taubes relates, the practice of “behavioral medicine” emerged and the term “eating disorder” became the preferred label, but the “head case” tenants are still intact.  The psychological eating dictates are with us today:  slow down your eating and eat only in the kitchen or at the dining room table (84).  I’d add this one:  we eat when we’re emotionally disturbed in order to nourish ourselves—rather than understanding when we’re emotionally upset, we have more trouble controlling an unsatisfying diet.  Anyway, Taubes notes that today “many, if not most, of the leading authorities on obesity are psychologists and psychiatrists, people whose expertise is meant to be in the ways of the mind, not of the body”—an outcome that ignores the chemical connections between obesity and diabetes (84). 

How is it that certain people get to be “experts” in combating obesity?  Newburgh, for instance, was a doctor of medicine.  Yet, most medical doctors study neither nutrition nor the chemical impact of foods on the human body.  So, where are medical doctors getting their information?  Like most of us, not many medical doctors have time to sit down and figure out whom among the “experts” actually has adequate credentials, is asking the right questions, has formulated solid scientific answers in an independent arena that is not tainted by either personal belief system or corporate funding, whose work has withstood ensuing peer critique, and whose results have been duplicated. 

Today, we are struggling with pronouncements from a host of medical doctors who have written very famous diet books—and made a lot of money–but whose diets often prove ineffective or, even, unhealthy when scientifically tested.  Many of these books are predicated upon the lipid hypothesis (anti-saturated fat).  Taubes uses the 1960s turn toward the belief that animal fats are bad for us and carbohydrates “heart healthy” to describe the formation of the lipid hypothesis belief system:   “…doctors and nutritionists started attacking carbohydrate-restricted diets, because they bought into an idea about heart disease that was barely even tested at the time and would fail to be confirmed once it was….They believed it though, because people they respected believed it, and those people believed it because, well, other people they respected believed it” (160-161). 

We are struggling with information from “expert” organizations like the American Dietetic Association, whose partners and sponsors, as revealed by Zoe Harcombe in THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC,  include “Coca-Cola ($31.4 billion), PepsiCo ($44.3 billion), GlaxoSmith Kline ($45.2 billion), General Mills ($14.9 billion), SoyJoy ($9.2 billion), Mars ($30 billion) and many others” (Tim Boyd, book review of Zoe Harcombe, THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC:  WHAT CAUSED IT?  HOW CAN WE STOP IT?, in “Wise Traditions,” Winter 2010, 50-52). Corporate industry funds academic departments and specific scientists and successfully obfuscates bedrock science, just as it did with tobacco and is doing with many current drugs and toxic chemicals.       

And we are struggling with a government whose agenda and regulatory mechanisms are controlled largely by industry–a government who has, regardless of dissenting bedrock science, used its authority and our tax dollars to effect vast, damaging, and unsustainable changes in our food system since World War II.  Industry has bent our government and our legal system to its will–corporations are now people, but do not have the ethical responsibilities of people–which is a potential death knoll for what remains of our democracy.      

In 1977, when Senator George McGovern’s U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs—a group operating out of belief, not science, decreed that saturated animal fat was dangerous, Dr. Mary Enig, then a graduate student of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, was so puzzled that she analyzed the report and reached the opposite conclusions.  Enig’s own work pointed to the highly-processed vegetable oils and trans fats as the likely culprits in increasing rates of cancer and heart disease.  She noted that the McGovern committee had “manipulated the data in inappropriate ways in order to obtain untruthful results.”  She published her findings, and the edible oils industry not only successfully silenced her and her colleagues, they prevented them from getting any further research money.  Though Enig and her colleagues continued their research, it wasn’t until the 1990s when European work on trans fats began to be published that Enig was vindicated (http://www.stop-trans-fat.com/mary-enig.html).  Nevertheless, deadly trans fats, often labeled “partially hydrogenated fats,” are still allowed in our foods.  

So, who is benefitting from the current energy paradigm?  In the end, no one.