Socialist Worker

Behind the dieting myths

A new book shows how the multinationals sell us junk food and junk diets

Issue No. 1867

THE ATKINS diet has been splashed all over newspapers and magazines recently, and has spawned a bestselling book.

It claims you can lose weight by eating as much fat and protein as you like. No need for old-fashioned healthy eating and exercise, says Atkins, bacon and eggs will make you slim.

This is the latest diet fad to play on many people's insecurity about their bodies.

The reality of oppression in this society means the diet is being targeted at women. Celebrities like Jennifer Aniston are paraded as 'successful Atkins dieters'.

The pressure on women about their body shape is constant. Newspapers and magazines lambast high-profile women for having cellulite and attack others for looking too thin.

Many women's response to the most basic human need-food-is completely distorted. US journalist Greg Critser has written a new book, Fatland: How Americans became the Fattest People in the World.

He argues that real health problems linked to weight are being ignored. The idea behind the Atkins diet is nothing new. Critser says, 'It has popped up with astounding regularity about every 25 years,' since it was first popularised in the 19th century.

He says it is 'full of medical mumbo jumbo and fraught with potential peril for anyone who followed it for a sustained period of time'. A diet that deprives the body of carbohydrates can damage your health.

Diet crazes trivialise a serious problem. 'Some 61 percent of people in the US are overweight enough to begin experiencing health problems. Children are most at risk from obesity,' says Critser.

Type two diabetes, a disease almost exclusively seen in adults, is now on the increase in children. It is linked to the increase in obesity and can cause painful physical disabilities.

Drug companies are circling like vultures to profit from this health hazard. Critser quotes a spokesperson from a top US drugs firm saying, 'These days you've got to be in diabetes.'

Critser points to the free market and the growing dominance of giant food corporations as helping fuel the rise in obesity since the 1970s.

The introduction of a cheap new sweetener in the 1970s drastically cut the costs of producing high-sugar products.

Critser argues that this had an impact on everyone's weight, but the poorest were most affected.

US workers work longer hours than those in Europe. Many don't have the time or energy to cook and eat a family meal at home.

So more people use McDonald's or Pizza Hut as a substitute. In 1977 the proportion of meals in the US consumed away from home was 16 percent. In 1995 it was 29 percent.

But cheap meals are not necessarily healthy. A serving of McDonald's chips contained 200 calories in 1960 compared to 610 calories today.

Corporations wanted families to use their food as a staple diet. For example 'Happy Meals' targeted at children are used to lure customers.

In the 1980s schools in the US began outsourcing their catering. Companies like Pizza Hut ran food carts in schools during breaks.

Now Coke offers schools contracts providing funding in return for the right to advertise and sell inside the school. Domino's Pizza graphics appear in maths lessons and children are taught to read by recognising logos from M&M sweets.

At the same time budget cuts for physical education mean that pupils have less opportunities for exercise.

Critser says that in poor communities there is a lack of access to cheap, fresh foods. Few safe areas for children to play mean they can end up watching TV and snacking. Less access to health provision means medical problems associated with weight can go unnoticed.

Sometimes he adopts a moralistic tone.

It is important to recognise the pressures on women. Many suffer from constantly being on a diet to fit some 'perfect' body image instead of being able to enjoy food.

But Fatland is a shocking condemnation of what capitalism does to our bodies.

Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, by Greg Critser, price £9.99, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 6 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1867
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