Burger on Fire

Burgers Make a Lousy Icon for Food Systems

Food systems are a key ingredient in the problem we face with obesity. But working toward healthier food systems is a challenge that goes well beyond the cartoonish ideas that surface in some public health campaigns. For example, marketing practices can be a vexing problem. Food security is a dimension of the problem that came to the surface in the COVID-19 pandemic. So when burgers become an icon for food systems and obesity, we lose perspective.

Recent experience on the U.S. political stage suggests that we might lose any possibility of rational discourse, too.

Sustainable, Healthy Food Systems

Plant-Based Ultra-Processed FoodsAt #ECO2021 and #COS7 yesterday, lively discussions about food systems went through the day. In a joint session with the WHO European Office, the focus was on sustainable and healthy diets. But the session made it plain that simplistic talk about burgers versus plant-based foods are misleading.

For example, Afton Halloran explained that avoidance of animal-sourced foods has an association with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. So we see a boom in plant-based ultra-processed foods.

Making a healthier, more sustainable food system is not so simple as getting rid of burgers. Not even close.

An Icon That Fuels Stigma

Too often, even today, even from people who should know better, we see stereotypical images about burgers in public health messaging about obesity. It’s not helpful because it promotes stigma. News reports about obesity frequently depict people with obesity chowing down on burgers.

But this is not the lived experience of people with obesity. In a qualitative study of public health messaging about obesity, one subject summed it up:

“Whenever you go to your local doctor you see pictures of large, overweight men or large, overweight women eating hamburgers and thick shakes and saying ‘one in three people over the age of 45 in this weight range are likely to suffer heart attacks.‘ I think, well that’s not me, because I don’t eat a hamburger and large chips every day.”

These depictions are not only false. They promote stigma, too.

Disappointing Failure

Recently, we’ve seen new public health campaigns that use burger images to represent the causes of obesity. But that imagery is mostly an icon for gluttony. And food systems are far more complex than than such stupid images would suggest.

So public health campaigns that rely of stereotypical icons like burgers serve only to mislead the public and add to the stigma of obesity. This is a disappointing failure to communicate.

Click here for more on sustainable, healthy food systems and here for more the relationship between fast food and obesity.

Burger on Fire, photograph © Theo Crazzolara / flickr

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May 13, 2021