10 things you could do instead of a sugar tax

It’s sugar tax season again, when leftwing politicians hem and haw about increasing the costs of food they don’t like in order to coerce people to be healthier. Are you excited? I’m excited.

jafar-ecstatic

But I wonder if there’s maybe another way to do things. A way which isn’t punitive, judgemental, or unsubtly sending a message to fat people that their lives are worthless. Maybe it might look something like this.

10 things you could campaign on instead of a sugar tax

Raising wages. Guess what the major obstacle to eating a varied diet high in fruit, vegetables, and tasty protein is? Food costs money! People don’t have much money! Make sure they have more money! Rocket science.

Community gardens, school gardens, and fruit trees on berms. Just put the fresh food out there. Give kids and adults the tools and space to develop skills, provide for themselves, and develop a stronger relationship with where their food comes from.

Good school lunches. Give kids access to a wide range of fresh locally-made food and let them figure out what makes them feel good and full of energy. Bonus: local jobs and opportunities for young/unemployed people to learn skills and contribute to their communities.

Make school sports free. Like, really? I’m not even a parent and I’m hearing about schools charging up to hundreds of dollars, per kid, per team they’re on, per term.

Pools, playgrounds, skate parks, basketball courts. Outside of school, create safe local places for kids and adults to get out and be active.

Raising wages. You know what else makes people reach for convenient pre-packaged highly-processed “junk” foods? Working two or three jobs because they can’t afford to pay the rent, much less be at home every evening to cook a meal from scratch, or go out to the park to play frisbee.

Break up the supermarket duopoly. Two companies control most of our supermarkets, which pushes prices up. Encourage local farmers’ markets especially in urban centres, make it easier for small grocers to get started, crack down on price-fixing and supplier bullying.

Reverse the government’s $1.7 billion cuts to health and then some. Build a health system focused on prevention (of actual diseases, not existence-of-fat-people-itis)

Adopt a Health at Every Size approach. It may sound terrifying, but trufax – when you stop focusing entirely on people’s weight and promote actual physical and mental health, you get happier healthier people. End sizeist policies which exclude fat people from healthcare, and get medical staff looking beyond body size.

RAISING WAGES. Like, seriously. You know what causes a hell of a lot more damage to people’s health than having a fat ass? Stress. Not all the kale in the world is going to save your life if you’re barely sleeping from worry and overwork, never getting any natural light, or constantly fretting about unexpected costs or keeping up appearances despite being skint.

The ironic thing is, many of these policies are already in the political picture. But time and again we get distracted by the policy equivalent of the South Beach Diet- it’s quick! It’s easy! It might damage your health in the long term but you’ll do it anyway because there’s literally nothing worse than being fat!

Our distaste for the huge corporations who sell the packaged/processed/unrecognisable/cheap/nasty food we label as “junk” distracts us from the reality that they are only able to profit because far too many people do not have the luxury of picking and choosing a perfect organic macronutrient-balanced meal plan every week.

I get it. Those guys suck. But ultimately, a sugar tax does nothing but make the cheapest food available more expensive, in an environment where many people cannot make ends meet anyway. Those people won’t find magical quinoa salad under the mattress in the boot of their car if a bag of potato chips costs 50c more.

There are so many other things we can do – so many things that would improve people’s lives without marching into their homes and telling them what’s good for them. A more positive, supportive approach which says people have free will and good hearts, which trusts them to make the right choices for themselves and their whānau. Which is what we’re meant to be about, isn’t it?

Enjoy your salad, enjoy your burger

My very good friend Coley Tangerina has a splendid post up about bodies, food and fitness in the workplace:

We lean over our cubicles or bemoan across the kitchen how long it’s been since we went to the gym, or how badly we’ve been eating lately, or how we’re worried about gaining weight or how we shouldn’t have had that thing for lunch.

We start up conversations to feel camaraderie in our slog. The receptionist’s salad looks healthy. Your boss must have hollow legs. Thank goodness your analyst is eating for two. Gosh, your PR person must be hungry!

This talk is common place in offices and while it’s totally understandable, it’s bad for workplace welfare. Here’s why.

Go read the whole thing.

I had a great experience recently working with a new team. Maybe it was because we’d already been talking about wellness and empathy in a broad sense, maybe (probably) it was because I’d been That Person who deliberately set a boundary early in the process, saying “A lot of workplaces have a really damaging culture around food talk.” Either way, we found ourselves discussing food – but it wasn’t negative. It wasn’t judgemental, or normative. Someone had brought something delicious for lunch, which reminded someone of a thing they’d cooked for dinner the week before, and (because these things are inevitable) we somehow ended up discussing the great Vegemite/Marmite dichotomy.

Yet, in contrast to almost every other work-based conversation about food that I’ve ever been party too, it was just … fun. A nice positive chat before we got back down to business. Nobody walked away thinking their body or food choices had been judged and found wanting.

Imagine if that were the norm. It’d be pretty awesome.

Stop letting the side down with your fat hate

This post has been knocking around in my head for a while but it’s timely after another round of The Great Liberal Fat-Hating Sugar Tax “Debate” has played out on the leftwing blogosphere.

There’s always an outcry when the phrase “fat hatred” gets used. “How dare you imply I hate fat people!” they say. “I’m just talking about the public health issues caused by obesity.”

You don’t hate fat people. And homophobic cake bakers in the US don’t hate gay people, they just want them to stop being gay in public (or anywhere else). And the boss who won’t hire women doesn’t hate women, he’s just making a rational financial choice because women just go off to have babies. The Tories don’t hate people on benefits, they’re just cynically appealing to their base by putting vulnerable people through a meatgrinder.

If you are a liberal, a left winger, or anyone who claims to oppose social injustice, you know damn well that oppression isn’t as black-and-white as someone literally nailing a “No Fatties” sign on the wall. If you’ve read so much as a Wikipedia summary of any historic human rights struggle, you know damn well “it’s science” is a well-trodden path to justifying systemic abuse and violence.

So stop clutching your pearls when people point out – in far more reasonable language than I will manage – that the demeaning, arrogant way you talk about fat people and your smarmy, paternalistic “solutions” to the problem of fat people existing is 100% hateful, oppressive, and contemptible.

Not because what you’re doing literally harms people by contributing to stigma which denies them access to jobs, homes, food or freedom. Not because you should recognise that fat people, including Those Awful Fat People Who Deliberately Make Bad Choices, are human beings with minds and autonomy.

Do it because when you hate on fat people, and when you pontificate about the virtue of denying them access to “bad” food, you are harming the movement. Put perfectly by Anna Mollow at Food, Fatness and Fitness:

The key to success, we are told, is to make “healthy choices.” Eat more kale! Cut back on carbs! These imperatives uphold two closely related ideologies: neoliberalism and fatphobia. Most of us on the Left know that rhetoric about individual choice is frequently used to support neoliberalism; by claiming that individuals have the power to shape their own destinies, defenders of the current social and economic order foreclose critiques of systemic injustice. Since false claims about the power of individual choice animate both neoliberal and anti-fat ideologies, one might expect the Left to have mounted a strenuous critique of fatphobia. But unfortunately, this has not been the case.

These are facts. A person’s weight is significantly controlled by genetics. Having a fat body is linked to but does not cause some health conditions the exact way sex, height and ethnicity are “linked” to different health conditions and risk factors. Diet and exercise do not explain why people get fat, and do not make naturally fat people thin. The diet industry is worth billions, and the companies who make money selling weight-loss plans and drugs which don’t work are doing exactly the kind of dodgy studies we get up in arms about when Coke commissions them.

There are serious health problems in our country. Actual diseases caused by substandard housing, actual illnesses made worse by a lack of varied food (where added sugar is a concern, but here’s the amazing irony: that’s because we decided too much fat made people fat so we got rid of all the fat in foods which made them taste awful!) We have actual epidemics of preventable diseases and we have too many families in our community who cannot afford a full load of groceries, or even the time to Just Grow Their Own Vegetables in the garden they don’t have because they’re living in their goddamned car.

Imposing a sugar tax fixes none of these. I hear your objection – “we want to do other stuff too!” – but you need to understand that none of that other stuff is happening. And it will never happen as long as you, the well-meaning liberals who just want to help the stupid poor people make better choices, continue to buy, believe, repeat and promote a fundamentally neoliberal ideology about fat people, food, and health.

Stop using rightwing memes to justify hatred. Stop saying “we must punish the fat people in order to save them”. Do something to actually make a difference in people’s lives: challenging the judgemental status quo, promoting real progressive ideas, building true solidarity against our capitalist oppressors and changing the damn world.

The enduring myths of fat and weight loss

A great summary of our society’s myths about fatness, weight loss and health from Big Fat Science, just as we hit the peak “starting a diet for the New Year” season.

“Obesity is one of the biggest killers in the Western World” 

False. Not even close. That would be poverty and lack of access to adequate nutrition and health care. Weight is actually a very weak and inconsistent predictor of mortality.

“there is no better way to curtail its effects on health than a healthy diet and exercise”

False. There is actually no known permanent and safe method for making fat people thin, and even if there was, losing weight does not improve health. Good nutrition (e.g., eating lots of fruits and vegetables) and exercise actually benefit everyone’s health, fat and thin, but do not change body size.

“ If you’re overweight or obese the best solution is to make incremental, lifelong changes to how you eat and exercise.

False.  There is actually no known permanent and safe method for making fat people thin. Moreover, dieting is unhealthy, and this is especially true for young people.

“Even this will have limited use in reversing the damage caused by years of unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle (certainly in those who have been obese from a young age)”

False. Body size is largely determined by genetics, not controllable behaviors like eating habits and activity level. Also, fat kids (and adults) actually eat less than thin kids and fat kids are just as active as thin kids.

The initial comment BFS was responding to spouts all the usual religious dogma of fat hatred. Don’t we all know that obesity is the Biggest Killer Of People and Healthy Diet And Exercise fixes everything and it’s Just That Easy?

But none of these things are true, and while we continue to accept them as gospel, all we do is continue to harm fat people and fail to address real causes of poor health and nutrition.

A final point of interest for me is the assertion “no doctor would ever promote yo-yo dieting”. It goes back to the post I wrote about Dr Robyn Toomath’s “giving up” on her holy quest to make fat people thin. A number of people asserted at me that I was misrepresenting her, that she would never stigmatize fat people or push dangerous messages about crash diets.

The problem is, any diet, meaning a specific change to the way someone eats or exercises with the goal of inducing weight loss, is a crash diet. Any plan designed to make people lose weight is 95% likely to be step one (or three, or five) of a yo-yo diet. Because diets do not work. They cannot work, because they all rely on the assumption that being thinner is healthier than being fatter, and thus that doing whatever it takes to become thinner must be a healthy activity.

And the horrible irony of it all is that through dieting, stigma, prejudice and outright medical malpractice, we as a society are actively damaging the health of fat people, and thin people too.

The despair of “obesity battlers”

A few tweets I made this morning after seeing this lamentation on Radio NZ’s website:

This is an idea I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while – the constant messages and stigma focused on fat people (right from the get-go, depersonalizing us by talking about “obesity” as an amorphous, scary phenomenon) aren’t science any more. They’re religion.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but making a headline by quitting and parrotting the usual demonizing lines – the Obesity Monster will destroy us all, the Obesity Monster is ruining our health system – and then mentioning “oh, by the way I have a book out soon” rings far too hollow to me.

For more information about Health at Every Size, I cannot recommend enough checking out Dr Linda Bacon’s website. Also:

I know this runs counter to so many ideas which are so deeply embedded in our society and media. We’re constantly reminded to associate physical size with health, and health with moral virtue. We’re meant to believe that weightloss is just this easy and that the only reason 95% of diets don’t work is because of personal failure and weakness.

But when we step away from the framing of “obesity” as a modern-day Nothing and remember we’re talking about people who happen to be fat, the whole facade starts to crumble. We can see that there’s a difference between having a certain body shape and having an actual defined health issue (like diabetes – which doesn’t only affect fat people – or high blood pressure – which doesn’t affect all fat people – or PCOS – which can cause weight gain but isn’t caused by being fat).

That’s crucial to being able to do something about those conditions instead of ignoring all the evidence that diets don’t work and fat stigma harms people far more than being fat does. That’s evidently something Dr Robyn Toomath wasn’t able to do. So, frankly, good riddance to her.