A Review of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism by Julie Guthman 

Food issue books have become as prevalent as Thai restaurants these days. One publishing house lists 32 titles devoted to the category of “Food and Culture” alone while one professor I know has counted well over 200. So the explosion of enthusiasm for all things gustatory begs the question, “Do we need yet another book?” The answer seems to be “yes,” especially when UC Davis Assistant Professor Julie Guthman ably dissects America’s attitudes toward our number one public health menace, obesity.

Be prepared, however, to have your cherished obesity assumptions sliced and diced.

Replenish “food deserts” (communities underserved by supermarkets) with gardens and farmers’ markets and fill our schools with tons of fresh fruits and vegetables. Wrong, says Guthman, who spares no ammunition on elitist “foodies” and the Bay Area Food Mafia. “The alternative food movement is the problem,” she claims, “not only in its inability to seriously challenge the cheap food movement, but also in its production of self-satisfied customers who believe that…good food is enough.”

Eliminate the commodity crop subsidies that have made us sick. Our long and complicated farm policy history, contends Guthman, has many causes and alternative explanations that have more merit than the “Pollanesque” logic connecting high fructose corn syrup, “cheap” calories, and federal farm policies.

More physical activity must be encouraged. Guthman retaliates against America’s obsession with working out and thinness by labeling it “healthism,” which under her peevish academic glare is rendered an illness rather than a healthy behavior. Not only does healthism reek of “self-absorption,” says Guthman, it leads to attitudes that discriminate against fat people.

Having recently spent three hours on a plane trapped in the middle seat between two obese gentlemen, I will confess to occasional spasms of prejudice against persons of weight. But Guthman made me feel guilty enough to conceal my comparatively svelte 61-year-old form – purchased with a 4-mile-a-day run and 8 daily servings of fruits and vegetables – in baggy sweat clothes.

Weighing In’s more significant shortcoming is not so much the author’s attack on the attitudes of the too thin, too beautiful, and too smart – one that we can all sympathize with from time to time – but with a distinct sense that Guthman is using this book to work through some of her own food issues. Though she claims to be an “annoying San Francisco Bay Area foodie,” she acknowledges early on that she is the product of an orthorexic father, e.g. a childhood that only permitted ice cream once a year, and a personal weight that fluctuates “between both ends of the ‘overweight’ category.” These experiences may account for the book’s decided tendency to lean more on opinion than research.

Given her attack on all things “foodie,” one could pigeonhole Guthman as one of those Ph.D. toadies that the food industry trots out from time to time to defend itself from healthy food advocates. Unfortunately, the reader must wade through many chapters of weedy academic prose before pronouncing her innocent of being a corporate shill. In what I would categorize as her most compelling argument, she makes her anti-capitalist credentials clear by positing a parallel between cheap food, low wages, degraded working conditions, and obesity. Wal-Mart, in other words, not only causes obesity, it profits from it.

For those of us who have labored long and hard to build a new food system out of the shell of the old, it will be hard to digest Guthman’s scathing critique. But the irritating grit of academic reason, as maddening as it sometimes is, can also sharpen our analysis.