Obesity is not an epidemic.
There is a reason we say something popular online has gone “viral”; because it resembles the uncontrollable spread of a virus.
People don’t go around injecting random strangers with virus-filled syringes, or spraying them in the face with virus-laced chemicals. These types of outbreaks occur in spite of the best efforts of society, and often the efforts of people who contract them without knowing.
Obesity, on the other hand, is a slight nudge on the scale beyond simply “overweight”. If the numbers show that a larger segment of society is overweight and obese than previously, it is not because more people have been subjected to a virus; it is a societal shift. Obesity can be caused by anything from diet, to hormones, to prescription medication. It is a condition, a symptom. The sad, common link between binge-eating disorder and obesity has clouded public perception of the two, and made it harder for victims of the disease to get the kind of help they truly need.
Over-eating—or rather, binge-eating—is a disorder. By definition, it is a sickness—of the mind. Just like anorexia and bulimia, it is a real mental condition not dissimilar from a chemical addiction or dependency. Once it latches on in the brain, it carries an immense weight, yet refuses to be let down.
Most importantly, it is not simply caught by exposure; it is drilled into many of us by year after year, moment after moment of social programming, marketing, pressure, and contradictory messages about what is ‘normal.’
American society has embraced consumption—excessive consumption—to the point it has been built into our culture, our daily lives. The drive to consume is at odds with good health, and with our popular standards of beauty, yet we don’t let that stop the promotion of this culture of consumption through every type of media and messaging the modern world can create.
The foodie movement has exploded online—whole sites and communities of people glorifying food in all its forms. Fast food has taught us that more is better, and to dissociate the up-front costs of food from the longer-term impact eating low-quality, high-calorie food.
And the unrealistic beauty standards we all decry yet simultaneously uphold have us all closeting our eating behavior, turning a basic human need into a shameful act we must hide—either to disguise the desperation with which we attempt to lose weight, or (and, as it turns out, more often) to try to cover up how our habits of consumption have overtaken every other impulse that might stop us from overeating.
We cannot vaccinate against eating disorders, because the compulsive behaviors they represent are not merely in our blood—they are in our minds. Drug rehab programs teach strategies to avoid risk behaviors and situations where drug use is made easier for addicts; over-eaters must constantly deal with the opportunity, the invitations, the omnipresent pressure to indulge. There is no avoidance strategy that works for eating, because eating is necessary to live.
This contradiction was the premise behind what was probably the single-best 2014 Super Bowl commercial. Food is not just food anymore—it is a drug, and a highly addictive one.
Our culture has poisoned us—millions of us—with this disease. The obesity that so frequently results from overeating and binge-eating may not be an epidemic, but it is a public health crisis, but the cure requires society as a whole to change its behavior in order for any cure to stand a chance.
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Edgar Wilson is a marketing consultant and analyst. He writes for various health and political journals, as well as cooking for his friends and family. He hopes one day to cultivate his own vegetable garden and orchard.
Edgar can be found on Twitter
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