Food Fight

Food Fight – The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis and What We Can Do About It by Dr. Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen

The number one rule to remember when reading studies, works of non-fiction, even the news, is that everyone approaches a piece with a bias. When it comes to nutrition studies, the bias often reflects who is paying for the study; in the news, whether the network or paper has a right or left-wing slant. In non-fiction, it comes down to why you’re writing the book and the point you want to get across.

Thus, no matter how much I want to like a book, and to take it seriously, I have to account for the fact that Food Fight was written in part by the Director of the Yale Centre for Eating and Weight Disorders.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – certainly Dr. Kelly Brownell is going to know more about the surging obesity epidemic than the average person. But his bias against the evils of obesity shows up early on, and I can’t help but begin to be skeptical.

According to Food Fight, research has shown links between obesity and more than thirty medical conditions. These include the standard and well-known Type 2 Diabetes, heart disorders and stroke, but who knew that there was a link between obesity and carpal tunnel syndrome? Or daytime sleepiness? Or… pain: no qualifier included to further explain that one – just pain. As someone who struggles with weight issues myself, I can’t help but be curious – what kind of pain? Why? Compared to who or what?

Now I don’t doubt that Dr. Brownell and his associate Katherine Horgen know what they’re talking about, but it seems as if they’re not above fluffing the facts a bit to prove their point. Which is unnecessary, because the straight facts about the food industry, particularly the fast food industry, speak for themselves.

Food Fight deals with all of the expected issues – fast food in schools, the sedentary lifestyle of both children and adults, lack of exercise, manipulation by media and advertisers, and the book is loaded with facts and figures. The style is dry and clinical, however, and isn’t chatty enough (as in Morgan Spurlock’s Don’t Eat This Book) to make the topic especially interesting to the layperson.

The other aspect of Food Fight that rubs me the wrong way is the activist idealism the authors espouse. While there are obvious links between health and education, nutrition and crime rates; the authors advise, indeed expect, governments to place the health of the nation first. As much as we’d all like to see this happen, realistically, we shouldn’t hold our collective breath. Schools are underfunded and will continue to turn to soft-drink companies for money, hospitals will close their cafeterias to put in food courts selling junk food, municipal governments will still make roads a priority over bike lanes. And no one wants to see their tax dollars go to putting exercise facilities in poor neighbourhoods only to have the people who truly want to get fit pushed out by drug dealers or gangs.

Brownell and Horgen end their book with a Summary of Recommended Actions, many of which put the responsibility on various levels of government to provide more funding to schools, set up a national plan to increase physical activity, and increase education on healthy foods and portion sizes. The actions directed at individuals also seem off the mark – how many parents (other than those who already refuse to buy their kids fast food or toys based on television characters) are really going to take the time to write a letter and “protest to companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon for offering up their characters to sell unhealthy foods”?

I’m not saying they’re not right. I agree wholeheartedly that the points they make should be implemented, but I don’t expect they ever will, and Food Fight comes off as another case of preaching to the choir. Remember, a society that loves its convenience and fast food isn’t going to embrace solutions that require time and effort. At least not until it hits them personally and they have no other choice.

Food Fight is full of information that will scare the pants off anyone open-minded enough to read the book. It’s crammed full of ideas to prevent America’s obesity problem from going any further. It just doesn’t strike me as very user-friendly in terms of the solutions it offers up, which makes it difficult to take the work seriously, especially when many facts and figures such as the obesity-related medical conditions are generalized.

I’d recommend Food Fight to anyone with a real and genuine interest in nutrition and the issue of fast food in our society, but I expect the average person reading this book would feel preached at, and not in a good way.