“Everything in Moderation” A Myth-based Ideology at the Root of America’s Obesity Epidemic

America is famous world-wide for its obesity epidemic. Over the last 30 years, the obesity rate in the United States has risen at an alarming rate. Billions of dollars have been spent on research and marketing campaigns based on the hegemonic rhetoric of fat makes you fat and the fear-mongering discourse that cholesterol causes heart disease.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given the American public the former “Food Pyramid,” and the new “My Plate,” which are both based on the ideology of a well-balanced, low-fat diet. Dedicated non-profit organizations and government agencies assure Americans that they are united with them in the war against obesity. Based on this, Americans should feel that their health is in trustworthy hands, but unfortunately this is not necessarily the truth. The corporate super-powers of the world are feeding billions of dollars to these governing organizations to assure the hegemonic discourse that is distributed supports the agenda, and the finances, of the corporate and political elite. This alliance has left American’s believing the myth that, despite extensive contrary evidence, choosing low-fat, whole-grain versions of their favourite snack food and eating everything in moderation is the key to good health.  

In the Marxist tradition, the term ideology describes how “cultures are structured in ways that enable the group holding power to have the maximum control with the minimum of conflict” (Lye, 1997, website). Karl Marx argues that the corporate and political elite, who he refers to as the “bourgeoisie,” use ideologies to promote their agendas and cover the truth (McKendry, week 4 slides). This is not to say that the authorities intentionally oppress people, but rather, demonstrates how the powers of societies operate through their values and symbol use, in order to legitimatize the current order (Lye, 1997). Cultural hegemony is Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theory that an elite ruling class can dominate the perceptions, beliefs, and values of a society by manipulating the group in to accepting the elitist viewpoint as universally valid and beneficial to everyone in society, but actually only benefits the ruling class (Stillo, 1998-99). Myth, in relation to Marxist ideology, is a story by which the elite can distribute their message to society in a way that transcends time and is accepted in to a group’s consciousness as logical, natural, and true phenomena. It is a vehicle by which ideology becomes discourse. Barthes’ describes myth as “depoliticized speech.” These terms as used from a perspective of the Marxist tradition have a socialist bias and are emotionally-loaded. Despite, the inflated use of the term aimed at the elite, it brings to consciousness a platform for post-modernistic questioning of dominant ideologies.

For the last 30 years, the public has adopted the ideologies of the USDA, American Heart Association, and the Eat Right Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). They have consciously tried to lower their fat and cholesterol levels by choosing reduced-fat versions of their favourite foods. They have switched from white breads and pastas to whole wheat, whole milk to skim milk, butter to corn or soybean oil products, and red meat to chicken. Collectively, they have shown to be following the recommendations of the USDA closely. But yet, the obesity epidemic continues to gain momentum. The prevalence of obesity in the United States increased from 13 percent to 32 percent between the 1960s and 2004. If the obesity and overweight rate continues to grow at its current pace, by 2015, 75 percent of adults and nearly 24 percent of American children and adolescents will be overweight or obese (Beydoun and Wang, 2007).

The public trusts that the dedicated government and non-profit agencies are advised by and run by people of high education, like doctors, nurses, and nutritionists, and therefore believe that the dietary advice and recommendations are based on extensive and thorough research that demonstrates undisputable evidence as a basis for the discourse they promote. People generally believe that what is recommended is the ideal and if they comply the will have optimal health. However, the ideology that is used as the basis for the Food Pyramid and My Plate recommendations are myths that have been disputed by academics in the medical community. High cholesterol is not linked to heart disease (Berkman et al, 1994) and it is processed carbohydrates, not fat, that makes people fat (Krones, 2010).

 To understand the motives for the My Plate dietary recommendations promoted by the USDA and Eat Right, one only has to look no further than the organization’s lists of corporate sponsors – a stark conflict of interest. Both are heavily funded by processed food companies such as Pepsico, Coca-cola, Mars, and Frito-Lay, and pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, to name a few. These corporations are more powerful than countries. Pepsico is the world’s biggest food & drink (snack food) company and has contributed $44.3 billion to Eat Right (the others have contributed similarly). If Pepsico were listed amongst countries worldwide by GDP it would be in the fourth position (Harcombe, 2011). Large corporations like these are the bourgeoisie of our times. The Eat Right Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals and is a dominant force in the American nutrition scene. It has succeeded in making it illegal to give out nutrition advice in many states, unless you are certified by the Academy. This further strengthens the hegemonic agenda of the organization and its partners, assuring that the dogma of the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet reigns strong.

My Plate key consumer messages are: enjoy your food, but eat less; avoid oversized portions; and drink water instead of sugary drinks – promoting diet soda as a good alternative, thus keeping in good favour with its alliances, Splenda and Coca-Cola. The dietary guidelines assure the public that low-calorie and low-fat versions of their favourite processed foods, are healthful choices – failing to address the added salt and sugar that coincides with it. Further, there is no mention of potential need for concern regarding preservatives, additives, or stabilizers, which are foreign in the evolution of humans until the last few decades (http://www.choosemyplate.gov).  

It is typical for ideologies to be carried out by the state ideological apparatuses, such as the Church, schools, and the Army. The USDA has created the Nutrition Communicators Network, which offers opportunities for different communities, schools, and organizations to help promote the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, allowing it to gain higher participation from the subordinate society. First Lady, Michelle Obama headed the launch of the new My Plate initiative and actively promotes adoption of the dietary guidelines to help combat obesity.

Lye (1997) notes that “any ideology will contain contradictions, will repress aspects of experience, will ‘disappear’ that which tends to contradict it or expose its repressions.” Ideology’s cultural activity will include the construction of pseudo-problems which are given pseudo-solutions.” A related example is the USDA’s advisement not to eat butter, a natural food product, due to the high level of naturally occurring saturated fat and promotes alternatives such as corn and soybean oils. Both industries are heavily subsidized by the Unites States government and up to 90 percent of American crops are grown from Monsanto genetically-modified kernels, another example of conflict of interest (http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/).

Monsanto is also member of the corporate bourgeoisie. Monsanto spends millions of dollars annually lobbying the government. The United States government and Monsanto have become famous for their revolving-door hiring practices, with at least 27 incidences of high-level executives holding positions for both industry and government (Nestle, 2007). The line between the two has blurred to the point it’s difficult to see separation. The most notable example is the case of Michael Taylor who has been the senior advisor of the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Commission in 2009. This is the commission that oversees the genetically modified foods that Monsanto engineers. Prior to this appointment Taylor was Vice President of Public Policy at Monsanto, and prior to that he worked for the USDA from 1994 to 1996, where he was Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service — another government agency meant to regulate the activities of corporations such as Monsanto. In 1991 Taylor again worked for the FDA as the Deputy Commissioner. This was his position after King and Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto. Prior to this private firm position, he was a staff attorney at the FDA (Moore, 2011).

The power of the bourgeoisie to affect the health of Americans is overwhelming, scary, and sad, when you consider how many lives have been negatively impacted. However, there is hope. With the advent of social media and the possibility of global connections across space and time, an opportunity now exists for common people to access alternate sources of information, even from academic articles by doctors and researchers who have their own opinions and produce data that is not skewed to fit the ideological framework of the bourgeoisie. It is possible for the subordinate class to develop a broad movement, capable of challenging the existing order and achieving hegemony itself. Yet, even if there are enough people that rise-up and change the ideologies about proper nutrition and make changes in their own food choices, if the governing bodies are held accountable for the effects of their wide-spread myth, the balance of power will remain with the dominant class, and they will re-establish their hegemony on the basis of a new pattern of alliances.

References

Berkman, L.F, Krumholz, H.M., Merrill, S.S., Mendes de Leon, C.F., Ostfeld, A.M., Seeman, T.E., Silverman, D.I., Tsukahara, R., Vaccarino, V.,. (1994). Lack of association between cholesterol and coronary heart disease mortality and morbidity and all-cause mortality in persons older than 70 years. Journal of American Medical Association [website]. Retrieved February 5, 2012 from http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/272/17/1335.abstract

Beydoun, M.A. and Wang, Y. (2007) Obesity Rates Continue to Climb in the United States. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Public Health News Center. Retrieved February 5, 2012 from http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2007/wang_adult_obesity.html

Harcombes, Z. (2011). The obesity epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? Obesity Reviews.

12(9), 756. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00858.x

Kones, R. (2010). Low-fat versus low-carbohydrate diets, weight loss, vascular health, and prevention of coronary artery disease: the evidence, the reality, the challenge, and the hope. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 25(5), 528-541. doi: 10.1177/0884533610380614

Lye, J. (1997). Ideology: A Brief Guide. In John Lye’s Course and Source Page, Department of English Language and Literature [website]. Retrieved February 4, 2012 from http://www.brocku.ca/english/jlye/ideology.php

Moore, R. (2011). Michael Taylor, Monsanto, and the Revolving Door. Franklin County Democrats The official site of the Democratic Party of Franklin County, Missouri [website]. Retrieved from http://www.franklinmodems.org/2011/02/14/michael-taylor-monsanto-and-the-revolving-door/

Nestle, M. (2007). Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health. Los Angeles, CA. University of California Press.

Sillo, M. (!998-1999). Antonio Gramsci. In Media / Gender / Identity Resources [website]. Retrieved February 4, 2012 from http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-gram.htm#hege

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