Tuesday, May 28, 2019

George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and Obesity

Considering the unending debate on obesity my thoughts go back to what George Orwell had to say of the dietary habits of the poor in his journalistic classic, The Road to Wigan Pier. As he remarked, rather than fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, the "basis of their diet . . . is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes," which he admits to finding "appalling." However,
the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.
Why is that? Simply put,
When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit "tasty."
And then as now there was plenty of the cheap but tempting available--white bread, tinned beef, sugared tea, and the rest--because, after all, "[u]nemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated," and such food does a rather better job of that than what the conventional wisdom recommends as nutrition.

That the observation is so little known, or appreciated, attests to how much more cited than really read Orwell, like all great writers, happens to be--and the utter alienness of what he really thought from the mainstream today, whose perspective is, as much as ever, that of complacent "millionaires." Considering the problem of obesity, it reduces the whole matter to personal, consumption, "lifestyle" choices, without the slightest respect for the matter of context. They have no interest in the class angle, no knowledge, curiosity, sympathy in regard to the hardships faced by those less well-off. The factors that incline the poor to cheap temptation do not enter into their calculations; the only thought is of taking away the palliatives. Thus they crack down on foods with sodium and transfat and large sodas, but poverty, economic insecurity, and the rest are not even seen as relevant.

I will not go so far as to say that matters like advertising or portion sizes are irrelevant, or that action on them has been completely unhelpful. Business does, after all, take advantage of the consumer, in this way as in others, through advertising, and by foisting larger portion sizes on the consumer. (When you buy a 20 ounce soda bottle because none of the machines in your vicinity are offering 12 ounce cans, that has consequences that add up.) Equally, there may be factors that are even less a matter of personal choice than the response of the deprived and stressed to temptations--not least, the effect of industrial chemicals or viruses on our bodies (for which a strong case has been made, sadly to little effect thus far). Yet, the failure is significant in itself, telling about the larger problem, and a significant reason why obesity has been yet another entry in that long, long list of problems--like the wreck of the natural environment, the health care system, the financialization of the economy--that are eternally talked about, and acted on ineffectively or not all, such that it has just got worse and worse, and which can be expected to go on doing so barring a change in the way society thinks and acts about these matters.

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