Battling the Bulge
Book review by Michele Simon

The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It
By Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen
356 pp. New York
McGraw-Hill Companies $24.95

Public health experts agree that obesity has become a national crisis. Less clear is what should be done about it. While government health officials tout exercise and "personal responsibility," more and more nutrition advocates are blaming the food industry for creating a world where Whoppers, Big Gulps, and Twinkies are more available and much cheaper than tofu, brown rice, and broccoli. Enter Food Fight, the latest book to take a deeper look at the social and public health consequences of America's love affair with junk food.

The book's primary author, Kelly Brownell, is the Yale psychology professor who coined the phrase "toxic food environment." He has been making quite a name for himself by helping to move the public discussion of obesity beyond a focus on diets and behavior modification. True to form, big food corporations have accused him of being a member of the "food police," a "nanny" bent on saddling them with advertising restrictions, junk food taxes, and other pesky regulations.

Expanding upon recent critiques of the food industry - including Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle's more academic Food Politics - Food Fight offers an extremely well-researched, thorough, and accessible account of how the foods around us are making us fat. Brownell and Horgen argue that obesity and other chronic health problems related to diet and inactivity are the result of our inability to adapt to an unnatural environment. Throughout human history, food was scarce, so we ate to conserve calories. We were also more physically active. Today, calorie-dense food is everywhere, and our lives are mostly sedentary. This drastic change in our environment has happened far too quickly for the human body to adapt, resulting in the current crisis.

Acknowledging that lack of exercise is a key culprit, the authors devote an entire chapter to this problem. They make the case for improving the environment so that physical activity can become a greater part of our daily lives, and give numerous inspiring examples of successful programs in schools, workplaces, and communities.

Brownell and Horgen also discuss the myriad ways in which the food industry uses targeted marketing campaigns in schools to seduce children with junk food and soft drinks, and present an impressive overview of the latest research on children's eating habits and their connection to obesity and other health problems.

Proposals to tax high-calorie, high-fat, or high-sugar foods receive a careful and balanced examination, which significantly broadens the discourse on this touchy subject. Equally illuminating is a chapter on the economics of obesity, which explains how poor people face unique challenges around access to healthy foods, and how national food-assistance programs can actually exacerbate the problem.

Throughout each chapter, Brownell and Horgen offer some very bold and promising ideas for combating the obesity epidemic, including proposals for restricting junk foods in schools and limiting advertising aimed at children. Less compelling, however, is their equivocal assessment of the role that industry can be expected to play in addressing the obesity epidemic. After examining the pros and cons of offering industry a seat at the table, the authors explicitly endorse a "centrist approach," which, unfortunately, is never very well defined. For example, how do we determine when it's acceptable for the food industry to sponsor sports programs and when it's not?

Also, Brownell and Horgen's expectations of the food industry are at times quite unrealistic and even naïve. For example, in a section called "How the Industry Can Prove Its Sincerity," they suggest that companies should encourage the same marketing experts who currently promote Ronald McDonald and Britney Spears to mount "campaigns to promote healthy eating." Unfortunately, it is simply not in the food industry's best interests to champion a way of eating that interferes with its bottom line. We cannot look to industry to solve the obesity epidemic. That is a task for civic action groups truly concerned with public health and our political leaders - who of course, are often corrupted by the very industries they are responsible for overseeing. (For the real "inside story" of how the food industry influences public policy, see Nestle's Food Politics.)

While it may not have all the answers, Food Fight is still an important contribution to the discourse around the obesity epidemic. I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to learn more about the role of the food industry, and especially to public health advocates looking for clearly presented research and ideas for positive change.

Michele Simon is an attorney and founder and director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, that advocates for a whole foods, plant-based diet and raises awareness about the politics of food.