It Is Cholera to Blame

Really? Blame the Food Industry for COVID-19?

We’ve seen quite a range of responses to the observation that obesity leads to worse outcomes with COVID-19. But most of them are unhelpful. First, of course, was denial. Now we have the anger phase. Over in the U.K., folks are murmuring that we should blame the food industry. Writing in the BMJ, Monique Tan, Feng He, and Graham A MacGregor spell it out.

It is now clear that the food industry shares the blame not only for the obesity pandemic but also for the severity of covid-19 disease and its devastating consequences.

Scapegoats are handy, but finding one does little to solve the problem. Like burning witches, blaming the food industry does little to solve the problem at hand. And it’s cold comfort to people who are suffering – either with diminished health or with the loss of a loved one.

Abstraction and Reality

We start with a reasonable thought. Changes in the food supply contribute to the growing prevalence of obesity in the U.S. and around the world. But that simple thought becomes messy when we dig into specific facts. Exactly how and why does our food supply contribute to obesity?

Glib, incomplete, and ultimately misleading answers draw lots of attention. Through the 1980s, people were blaming foods high in fat. Denmark even tried a fat tax. In the country that exports butter cookies all over the world, that idea quickly went down in flames. Sugar taxes are now pretty popular right now. But we don’t have any empiric evidence  that they’re actually working to reduce obesity prevalence.

Another good suspect is ultra-processed foods. Or maybe it’s food marketing that’s making us all fatter. All those cues to buy and eat more yummy stuff add up over time. In reality, many factors – including our own preferences and desires – are probably working in concert to evolve the food supply toward promoting more obesity.

The Enemy Is Us

The real problem with making the food industry into a scapegoat for obesity and in turn for COVID-19 is ultimately a pragmatic one. We are pointing fingers at ourselves. The food industry is so huge – trillions upon trillions of dollars around the world – that we all depend upon it. We depend upon it for our livelihoods and for economic vitality. It is life-sustaining. This industry employs vast numbers of people from growers to manufacturers to distributors to servers and much more. Thus, in millions of tiny ways, we are all contributing to the problem.

So yes, obesity is a problem that adds to severity of COVID-19. And the quality of our food is likely contributing to obesity’s growing prevalence. But raging into the darkness does nothing. The answer to darkness is light. That light will come only with curiosity about the real nature of factors that are contributing to obesity and objectivity about solutions that actually have an effect.

Finding cures for a problem is a whole lot more effective than burning a human sacrifice.

Click here for the perspective from Tan et al and here for the BMJ press release. For perspective on finding scapegoats in a plague, click here.

It Is Cholera to Blame, painting by Pavel Fedotov / WikiArt

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June 21, 2020

One Response to “Really? Blame the Food Industry for COVID-19?”

  1. June 22, 2020 at 8:09 am, David Brown said:

    Actually, the big problem is public health dietary advice.

    “Reducing salt, sugar, and saturated fat across the board would improve the diet of the entire population and bring even greater benefits for people who are most socially deprived.” Tan et al

    “… on analyzing global COVID-19 mortality data and comparing it with 12 risk factors for mortality, they found unsaturated fat intake to be associated with increased mortality. This was based on the dietary fat patterns of 61 countries in the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization database. Surprisingly, they found saturated fats to be protective.”