The Obesity-Industrial Complex

Twinkies and apple slice
A generalization that can truthfully be made about food corporations is that they are powerful. Although many of their products are meretricious, the enormous profits enable the companies to buy as many congresscritters as they need, to make or refrain from making laws according to their requirements.

Counterpunch writer David Rosen traces the evolution of a term that has been adapted to current reality: the “obesity-industrial complex.” He writes,

A half-century ago, President Eisenhower identified the military-industrial complex as a threat to the nation; it now dominates politics and the economy. As the 21st century unfolds, an obesity-industrial complex can be identified. Like its military compatriots, its influence on America’s body politic is no less consequential… While the finger of judgment is pointed at parents, schools and kids, no mention is made of the agriculture industry, the food and drink companies, the fast-food industry or media advertising that benefit handsomely promoting bad eating and living habits.

Sure, we have heard plenty about all this stuff from the press, picking up on the concerns of politically aware health care professionals. What Rosen alleges is that announcements issuing from Washington leave the obesity villains out of the picture. Specifically, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign omits any mention of the damage done by farm policy and other federal sources of trouble, including the legislative coddling of the food industry.

He talks about a poll in which respondents apparently were offered only two choices to name the culprit behind the obesity epidemic: the government or the individual. The food corporations are not even offered as a multiple-choice item. Of course, it could be said that the blame for the food corporations is implied in either of those choices. They are aided and abetted by the government, which does not exercise enough control, and by all of us individuals who neither insist that the government exercise control, nor resist the seductive wiles of the corporations’ marketing strategies.

Rosen says,

Food and beverage companies, along with others within the obesity-industrial complex, create, promote and sell high-calorie, low-cost processed foods and drinks; snacks, in particular, play a crucial role in childhood obesity. These products are designed to entice consumers, especially young people and children, to eat themselves into obesity.

As we have heard many times, about 17% of America’s kids (age 2-19, in this context) are obese. That’s around 12 and a half million, and while some areas of the country or some demographic groups may show sporadic improvement, the overall picture is not improving in any noticeable way. Rosen points out, for example, that the average American woman weighs 162 pounds and wears size 14, which in the clothing business qualifies as “plus size.”

For this, we are invited to blame our parents for the genes they passed on to us along with their bad lifestyle habits, and we encouraged to point the finger at our own lack of self-esteem and other emotional problems. The complicating factor is that, sure, these charges contain a certain amount of truth. If, as Dr. Pretlow and many others believe, food addiction is a monstrous problem, then the responsibility does lie with us to get treatment for our addictions, which generally originate from emotional sources.

It’s our own responsibility to get treatment for nicotine addiction, too. But, in the recent past, the tobacco industry has been identified as a responsible party in widespread nicotine addiction. It certainly does its part, by aggressively pushing the product and by misusing science to make its product as addictive as possible. The food industry has borrowed heavily from the tobacco industry’s playbook, and has enjoyed the same success in evading responsibility.

Rosen says,

Today’s obesity-industrial complex is like the tobacco industry before the 1994 Congressional hearings, in denial and lying all the way to the bank.

Rosen congratulates writers like Michael Pollan, Morgan Spurlock, and Marion Nestle, who step up and deliver a load of blame squarely where it belongs, with the food-industrial complex. He refers us to a PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) report titled “Apples to Twinkies,” which points out that most U.S. government farm subsidies apply to crops that are made into the very substances that cause so much trouble, like high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils. The only significant federal subsidy connected with a fresh fruit or vegetable is for apples.

The amount, $7.36, per person, per year, that we pay to subsidize the agricultural components of junk food, would buy 19 Twinkies. If you take the amount per person, per year, that we pay to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables, that 11 cents would buy about a quarter of an apple. What we pay in taxes is redistributed by the government in the form of farm subsidies to the very corporations that are working overtime to perpetuate childhood obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Politics of Obesity,” Counterpunch, 10/28/11
Image (modified) by Like_the_Grand_Canyon, used under its Creative Commons license.
Image (modified) by dccradio (Mark), used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources