Politics Are Truly Beside the Point in Obesity

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” Groucho Marx (borrowing words from Ernest Benn) explained perfectly why politics aren’t helpful for dealing with obesity. If you want a case in point, we will send you to a new essay in The American Conservative by Casey Chalk.

Chalk says conservatives must fight obesity – for the common good and for our children. OAC’s CEO Joe Nadglowski finds a mixed  bag of ideas in Chalk’s essay:

On the positive side, those of all political stripes should care about obesity as the article explains. Obesity is not a left or a right issue. So we need true bipartisan action to address this complex problem.

My caution would be about oversimplifying the problem and searching for blame rather than solutions. We have enough blame contributing to bias already.

Facts Are Not Partisan

When fighting for a cause, sometimes facts disappear into the dust storm of arguments. Chalk gets many fact right. He cites the economic impact of obesity. Healthcare costs are soaring because of it. Productivity and competitiveness are suffering.

But he also dismisses the genetic basis for obesity, which is factually incorrect. True, single gene mutations causing obesity by themselves are rare. But but multiple genetic factors add up to make obesity a highly heritable condition. That’s the key reason why some families tend to be skinny, while others tend to be much heavier. It’s multiple genes interacting with an environment that promotes obesity.

Assigning Blame

Blame figures big in Chalk’s essay. He argues for censuring people with bad dietary and exercise habits. But he also suggests we should target businesses that are complicit in relentlessly pushing unhealthy foods and portions.

Superficially, he seems quite even-handed in doling out blame. But assigning blame easily becomes a political exercise that solves nothing. Shall we blame big food or intemperate individuals? Chalk moves on to close with a call for temperance. It’s an interesting concept, evoking the politics of prohibition.

Mixing up a cocktail of obesity and politics won’t really help. Obesity is simply a matter of human health, not politics. Grounding our solutions in facts, not politics, will take us further.

Click here for Chalk’s essay. For other perspectives, click here and here.

Politics, photograph © Bruce George / flickr

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July 26, 2018

4 Responses to “Politics Are Truly Beside the Point in Obesity”

  1. July 26, 2018 at 10:37 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thanks, Ted–this is such an important consideration set (the role of politics and partisanship in health policy) and I see it all the time in my work on nicotine and science policy.

    It struck me, reading this, that perhaps the nutrition/obesity community has a similar challenge that I see within the tobacco/nicotine world: clarity and expression of overarching goal(s)–and if there are trade-offs to be made, actually making and owning them.

    I cover these issues in this video, with a focus starting just after minute 7:


    Thank you!


    • July 26, 2018 at 10:39 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Joe. I always count on you for reason and balance.

  2. July 26, 2018 at 1:55 pm, Casey Chalk said:


    This article says “But he [Chalk] also dismisses the genetic basis for obesity, which is factually incorrect.” What’s “factually incorrect” is the above sentence, given that I don’t dismiss the genetic basis for obesity, but explicitly recognize it. I wrote:

    “Although it’s true that a small minority of Americans are overweight or obese because of genetic conditions…”

    There’s nothing factually inaccurate with that statement, as the article above admits.

    The reason why obesity should be addressed through political action is because it is having an impact on the public square. As my article notes, obesity is a massive economic drag on this country, and it’s killing many Americans prematurely. We take political action to deal with alcoholism, tobacco addiction, drug addiction, and many other consumption-related behaviors that negatively impact society. Why not behaviors tied to obesity? Political solutions are appropriate, because all Americans suffer from the effects of obesity. best regards,

    Casey Chalk

    • July 27, 2018 at 6:11 am, Ted said:

      Hi, Casey, and thanks for taking time to read and comment.

      When you write that genes are responsible for obesity in only a “small minority” of Americans, you are incorrect. In fact, obesity has long been known to be highly heritable. Indeed, genetic susceptibility is a major factor for most people with obesity. And, of course, other factors do come into play.

      Again, thanks for sharing your views.