Any understanding of the obesity crisis in America must look at society as a whole. It does no good to simplify the matter as a problem of overeating.
Beneath the surface of the obesity epidemic, there is a societal crisis of great significance. With population weight gain, there is a concomitant increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), family breakups, and depression.
From the start, health officials prescribed diet restrictions, thinking that if patients just ate less, they would lose weight and their health would improve. They simply did not address the matter of what was driving the overeating.
A Need to See the Whole Picture
However, this is the core of the matter especially at a societal level. It is here that we stand before a reality that is so disturbing and overwhelming, that if we don’t stop and rethink our medical strategies, everything will collapse.
Why don’t people and health care professionals see this link between obesity and all the other epidemics? The answer is found in Ernest Becker’s The Structure of Evil. It can be traced way back to the consequences of the fragmentation of knowledge that came with the arrival of Newtonian science. Becker writes: “The ideas of system, unity, interrelatedness, academies, were very much in the air a few hundred years ago, and formed a vital part of the strictly scientific preoccupation.”
Indeed, the goal of this unity of science was to “answer intellectual problems only in order to come to grips with moral and social problems.”
However, Becker writes that what happened was essentially an overestimation of the value of physical science. As science and medicine advanced during the Enlightenment, the population easily became mesmerized by this progress. Intellectuals like Rousseau saw Newtonian precepts as a means to promote knowledge for the sake of science.
Under this new scientific perspective, knowledge was catalogued, classified and ultimately fragmented. The great critics of science at the time found fault with this new perspective because they felt that science only had true meaning and value if it “subserved virtue and morality” (Becker, 1968, p 16).
However, the new scientists claimed a great new nineteenth century morality would supposedly come out of science after Church dominance and teachings were extirpated from French society, Europe and the world. Unfortunately, the new morality never did crystalize. Becker writes: “…since the Enlightenment we have gradually drifted into a position of what amounts to calculated self-abasement by actively forfeiting what the human animal needs most: a unitary critical worldview, infused by continuing moral awareness.”
Our disillusionment, as a society, got unfortunately turned toward the service of what Becker called “the new cynicism, blind to both spiritual and human values.”
A Fragmented Vision Everywhere
This fragmented vision of the world became universal. We have fragmented medicine, the social sciences, philosophy and theology into specialties that rarely talk to each other.
Thus, professionals cannot see that obesity is in a true sense a social problem culminating from a society that has lost sight of the virtue of temperance. At its root, obesity is not a medical issue. We will continue to battle the growing girth of the American people so long as we put off looking deeper into the true hunger that drives this eating frenzy.
Soon, we can hope, social scientists, not medical doctors, will uncover that the breakup of the family as a cause. They will especially point to the weakening of the father, through feminism, as protector of the family and the defender of virtue as the single, most important factor in the obesity crisis. The hunger is for truth, clarity, authority and order.
The Denial of Death and Obesity
To look at the obesity crisis through this lens invariably means looking at our vulnerabilities and what we crave for the most but cannot achieve.
Going deeper into the problem, we see that it is order that we desire, but death and its meaning brings disorder to our lives. The absurdity of life eventually stares us all in the face and so, to remain sane, writes the aforementioned Becker, we must refuse to acknowledge that we die. This of course flies in the face of reality because (some soon, others later) the undeniable truth is that we all will die.
For an irreligious person, this conclusion is pure insanity. Although certain, we spend very little time thinking about death, and yet death is one thing we should make sure to get right, because there is no second chance. However, our culture discourages such conversations since it is viewed as kind of dark and not uplifting.
There are two major arguments supporting death as an important conversation for dealing with reality and even with obesity. First, the denial of death shapes the way we live and has led us to a hatred of children and life. This taints our entire society.
Making Sense Out of Our Mortality
Indeed, neglecting to talk about death, trivializes life, making it glow with absurdity. The practice has invariably led our culture towards a more pragmatic understanding of death by embracing contraception, abortion, infanticide, and finally euthanasia. In the face of these evils, the human heart hungers for a relief from the tensions that build up between the desire to do good and the consequences of committing grievous sin. Overeating and promiscuous sexual encounters become expressions of this insatiable and misplaced deep hunger. But, alas, they do not fulfill.
Second, a conversation about death becomes essential in a culture wrapped up in extreme self-absorbance that rejects sacrifice, and avoids altruism. Dying for another or dying for a cause is no longer part of the social script. The consequence of this spiritual dryness has driven our culture and youth, insatiably looking for meaning, to embrace suicide as an escape from hopelessness.
For indeed, if we stand for nothing, then the question interiorly becomes: what do we stand for? What have we become? In the fight for health, these are some of the uncommon questions that need to become common.
Dr. David Bissonnette is an Associate Professor of Nutrition at Minnesota State University, Mankato where he does obesity research. He advances that obesity is a mere symptom of a much greater social malaise which medical science has failed to address. He is author of two textbooks: It’s All About Nutrition and Nutrition for Healthcare Professionals. He has produced documentaries and manages the web site: The Nutrition Report.