Are overweight people victims of capitalism? Plenty of people think so. Documentaries like Supersize Me blast the market for offering unhealthy foods. Food, Inc proclaimed that “industrial food” is making us fat and sick. The entire trend is summed up by the title of a Huffington Post article: “For Capitalists, Obesity is a Sign of Marketing Success.”
But to truly understand why over a third of Americans suffer from obesity, we need to dig deeper. The villain may not be so obvious.
In “The Sugar Conspiracy," the Guardian’s Ian Leslie tells the story of how, in 1980, the United States Department of Agriculture, together with Department of Health and Human Services, published its first “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The recommendations carried a lot of weight: doctors based their own guidelines on them, consumers trusted them, and companies complied with them in order not to be viewed as unhealthy.
Within a few years, obesity rates began to skyrocket. In 1970, the obesity rate was 14.5 percent in the United States. In 1980, it was 15 percent. By 1990 — after a decade of the government’s guidelines — it had the obesity rate jumped to 23.2 percent. How much of this is causation as opposed to coincidence isn't clear, but what is clear is that, at the very least, the government's guidelines failed to prevent skyrocketing obesity.
How could this happen? The Dietary Guidelines warned against eating fats, especially saturated fats. This seemed intuitive: eating fat, the logic went, makes people fat. But this coincidence in terminology (which can be better seen if we say it another way: eating lipids makes people overweight), and the government’s recommendations, concealed the fact that most fats aren’t actually bad for you. A 2016 study in the prestigious The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology showed that people who ate a high-fat Mediterranean diet actually lost more weight than people who restricted their fat consumption.
After the government issued its recommendations, Americans cut back on fat — and made up the calories with carbohydrates, which do cause weight gain. A 2003 study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that people on a low-carb, high-fat diet (exactly the opposite of what the government recommended) lost more weight than people on a low-fat, high-carb diet.
One of the biggest causes of weight gain is sugar. Jim Mann, professor of human nutrition and medicine at the University of Otago, conducted a 2013 meta-study that showed a strong correlation between sugar consumption and weight gain.
In the 1950s, prominent nutritionist John Yudkin recognized this, but he was shouted down by government nutritionists who were convinced that fat was the problem. The Dietary Guidelines do tell people to avoid sugar — but only because it causes tooth decay. They reassured Americans that sugar wasn’t bad for you outside of this, even saying that it didn’t contribute to type II diabetes.
Since the 1980s, obesity has been on the rise. In 2012, 34.9 percent of American adults were obese.
But there's good news on the health front.
In the past few decades, producers have shifted toward an increasingly health-conscious consumer. Whole Foods grew into a national chain offering healthy alternatives to everything from soda to crackers. Competitors soon emerged, offering a bevy of healthy foods and drinks.
Losing market share to these stores, even mainstream grocery chains began to offer healthy alternatives. Kroger’s, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, stocks organic produce and healthy varieties of everything from energy bars to bread. Even McDonalds responded to Supersize Me by getting rid of their “Super Size” option and offering more fruits and salads.
The exercise industry also flourished. Gyms, at-home exercise machines, and a slew of exercise videos and programs flooded the market.
This whole industry is capitalist at its core, driven by consumer demand. In 2012, consumers spent $60 billion on trying to lose weight.
For those who couldn’t lose weight with diet and exercise alone, a new health solution emerged: bariatric surgery. Bariatric surgery involves shrinking the stomach or rerouting the small intestine so that people don’t feel as hungry. And when they do eat, fewer calories are absorbed. Together with diet and exercise, bariatric surgery routinely helps patients lose 100–200 pounds or even more, while also getting off of medications. While some people may frown on surgically altering the human body, it’s tough to argue with patients who say that the procedure has given them their life back.
Bariatric surgery has even evolved to cure problems linked to, but not solely caused by, obesity. The US government, by telling people that sugar didn’t contribute to Type II diabetes, helped cause a diabetes epidemic. But bariatric surgeries like the duodenal switch can often cause total remission of diabetes.
In this budding weight-loss industry, some scams emerge. But, unlike the government’s poor science, these nonsolutions are shouted down before they can cause too much harm. When weight-loss plans don’t work, they get blasted by sites like Consumer Reports. Google Adwords (the largest online advertising platform) won’t let scammy weight-loss programs advertise on their platform.
Even the Guardian lays our obesity epidemic at the feet of government, not the market: “If, as seems increasingly likely, the nutritional advice on which we have relied for 40 years was profoundly flawed, this is not a mistake that can be laid at the door of corporate ogres.”
But doesn’t capitalism push poor people to eat unhealthy food, because that’s all they can afford? It’s true that eating healthy is slightly more expensive, but here too government has made the problem worse. Subsidies for high-fructose corn syrup and other processed foods push the cost of unhealthy food below market levels.
The government is subsidizing unhealthy food. We shouldn’t be surprised when that makes it more affordable than a healthy diet.
The primary goal of entrepreneurs in the free market is to find peoples’ pain points and offer relief. In this case, the US government created and exacerbated a health crisis, and the market stepped in with multiple solutions. Just think how healthy we’d be if the government had never gotten involved in the first place.