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Efforts at promoting healthier diet undermined by mixed messaging?

Forks Over Knives is one of several recent films concerned with the so called 'obesity epidemic' and urging dietary reform. (See also Killer At Large; Food, Inc.; Planeat). These films are attempting to convey an important message, however, I am concerned that their persuasive tactics – namely, condemning national industry and linking obesity to global warming – run the risk of culturally polarizing healthier eating, a seemingly secular, universally appealing value. The films start out with important, on point information: establishing the ‘obesity epidemic’ as a significant public health issue: one third of adults and 17% of children are obese, one third of children are overweight, resulting in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and early onset diabetes. Obesity-associated high cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke (two of the leading causes of death) contributes significantly to the U.S.’ extraordinarily high per capita cost of health care, according to CDC.  The films then present evidence that diets high in cholesterol from animal products, saturated fat, and sugar likely cause obesity and associated health risks, and suggest dietary reform.

But instead of staying on this narrow message – eat healthier to avoid these health risks – they take the argument further. Here’s where they risk undermining receptiveness to their main message by unnecessarily making two culturally polarizing arguments: (a) they take a strong anti-industry bent – urging we repudiate the exploitative national food industry (and switch to local farming, or raw vegan diets, etc.), and (b) they link obesity to global warming. The films argue: ‘Not only should you reform diet to promote your own health, but you should change your diet in order to thwart the exploitative national food industry and save the planet from global warming.’ These films are not alone in connecting obesity to global warming. (See also, e.g., CNN; ABC; U.K. medical journal The Lancet; and Nature, Global Warming: Is Weight Loss a Solution?); one recent article even uses the tagline “obesity is the new global warming.” 

By infusing messages about healthier diet with demands to repudiate the national food industry and threats of global warming, these films seem to unnecessarily tie healthy eating to culturally polarizing issues. The call for healthier dieting urges reduced consumption of beef and dairy products – a deeply rooted American industrial and cultural tradition. This threat to beef and dairy, when joined with arguments to revolutionize the national food industry and stop global warming, unnecessarily implicates and threatens the entire traditional American industrial way of life (meat & potatoes) associated with dominance and masculinity – trucks, farms, factories, steaks and burgers.  It seems that this connection – reform your diet in order to stop exploitative national industry and avert global warming – might make the idea of dietary reform particularly threatening to hierarchical values. This might induce biased processing, or cause some audience members to discredit (out of cultural defensiveness) evidence on the risks of over-consumption of animal product cholesterol, saturated fat, and sugar. Thus, generating culturally protective resistance to dietary reform that promotes the seemingly secular, universal values of health and longevity. One commentator writing about Forks Over Knives, otherwise receptive to film’s message about dietary reform, captures this problem: “[T]he documentary just may be the Inconvenient Truth of the digestive system… My problem with the documentary is where it crosses into puritanical proselytizing about the value of a vegan lifestyle. Here food becomes something unappetizingly pragmatic, and elements of what eating means to a society – from cultural to religious to familial – are downplayed.”

There has been great resistance from parents to improving school lunch programs, loaded with fatty, high cholesterol, and sugary ingredients that have been linked to obesity and associated health problems.   Resistance persists even when the schools are shown they can produce healthy lunches for the same cost, without much structural change. Certainly, there is institutional and industry resistance to change, but I wonder whether part of parental resistance (i.e., parents insisting that french fries be served at least three times a week) is a defensive response to dietary reform perceived as a cultural threat? Messages aiming to encourage healthier eating should be cautious to avoid the implication that healthier dieting requires rejecting an entire lifestyle as American as, well, McDonalds drive thru windows and apple pie.

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