ICBioethics Blog 

Obesity and Ethics

Written by: Barbara Postol

Some schools in Massachusetts have recently sent home letters to parents whose children classify as obese, which is raising controversy. Parents fear the so-called “fat letters” will hurt their children’s feelings or stigmatize the kids. The intention was pure: they let parents know their kids may classify as overweight, but nonetheless, it raised some eyebrows.

This brings forth an interesting conversation because obesity is skyrocketing and is one of if not the biggest public health problem in the United States and around the globe. The World Health Organization suggests that by the year 2020, 50 percent of the world’s population will be overweight. Health issues stemming from obesity are putting a burden on the health insurance systems in the US and making people flat out sick. A national survey in 2006 in the US also suggests that the majority of those questioned (53% of Americans) believe it is fair for obese individuals to pay higher insurance premiums than people with healthy lifestyles. It seems like a pretty easy solution to place sole responsibility on the individual, but is it?

True, the individual has a big role in the food they consume but that it is far too simplistic to not look beyond diet. People don’t physically work as hard as they used to at jobs anymore and lifestyles have become more sedentary. Now, we go to gyms for exercise, whereas a few decades ago we worked on farms or factories all day. Food has changed. Now more than ever there are cheap, processed, poor quality foods available. Sadly, much of the poorest quality foods are often marketed towards those with the lowest incomes and those who have less access to fresh produce and better quality foods, for example.

Thinking beyond the individual, let’s think more about the foods out there and the food industry. After all, the food industry is an industry like any other that functions on profit. Companies benefit financially when people buy more and eat more of their products. Fat and sugar in products have also been on the rise in recent years. The reason is simple: they taste good and our bodies crave them. Walk into any grocery store and you can see all the processed foods with a long shelf life. Then read a food label, the amounts of fat and sodium are shocking…but sometimes the price is cheap. It feels rather manipulating. If you think about it harder, it’s easier to be tempted toward a bounty of lower cost options that will last forever than it is to explore the healthier more expensive items, especially if your food budget is tight. Sure we don’t have to buy them, but ask yourself why some pretty lousy products are being sold in the first place because if they were not making money, they would not be on store shelves. So what ethical role does the food industry play in all of this?

Mitch GennusoComment