Monday, July 23, 2012

An Inconvenient Prejudice

I’ll admit something I’m not proud to say: I have a prejudice against fat people. I’m a fattist. I have many excuses for my judgemental attitude. For a long time I felt that the obese were simply people who lacked my discipline. Why couldn’t they just get up every morning at 6 am and run several miles? Why couldn’t they just limit their breakfast to a single slice of buttered toast, lunch to one sandwich and dinner to water and a piece of chicken? I did.

It was many years before I realised that I struggled with disordered eating, but that never quite removed the taint of moral superiority that I had about my weight. Even in the times during my childhood when I lived in Nigeria and was derided for being too skinny (the traditional beauty ideal in many African countries is bigger and curvier than in the West) I could never quite shake the feeling that I was still better off.

But times they are a-changing. As looking well-fed is becoming easier to achieve in Nigeria, it’s becoming more socially desirable for women to be slim. The slang word Leppa, which used to be a derogatory term for a skinny woman when I was growing up, is now used positively. Women now talk of going on diets, and mornings in middle-class and affluent neighbourhoods are awash with potbellied residents marching about in jogging suits - exercising. And for the first time, I’m seeing obese children.

I have come to understand that obesity is not a lack of moral fibre. It’s an addiction. But unlike narcotics like cigarettes and heroin, its users don’t even know that they are junkies.

Jaques Peretti wrote in the UK Guardian that in the 70s, the discovery of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) - a cheap sweetener that could use up the US’s excess supply of corn and be used in just about every conceivable food – “transform[ed] the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.” It allowed Americans to grow fatter cows, and create cheaper food that would last longer and taste better – giving you more calories for your dollar. And it made some people – American farmers and food processing companies such as Coca-cola, Kraft Foods and Nestle – staggeringly rich.

The problem was that HFCS breaks down in the body a lot like ethanol (the sugar in alcohol) and the consequences of long-tem exposure is much the same. However, sugar’s immediate effect is much closer to nicotine and heroin than alcohol. Peretti noted that:

The more sugar we ate, the more we wanted, and the hungrier we became. At New York University, Professor Anthony Sclafani, a nutritionist studying appetite and weight gain, noticed something strange about his lab rats. When they ate rat food, they put on weight normally. But when they ate processed food from a supermarket, they ballooned in a matter of days. Their appetite for sugary foods was insatiable: they just carried on eating.

According to Peretti, food companies have spent an awful amount of time and money convincing the public that the problem with our diets is excessive fat not sugar. So they’ve been removing fat from their products (because that’s what they are – products not real food) and replacing it with more sugar. They’ve been colluding with “science” to feed us the myth that obesity is merely a problem of personal restraint. Of course it helps that in most western societies the most obese are usually the poor for whom these sugary products are most affordable (In many places, vegetables are much more expensive than Big Macs). And it’s easy to demonise the poor.

I have paid a heavy price for my prejudice. I scuttled my most promising relationship because I couldn’t deal with my partner’s “weight problem”. While I recognised the signs of addiction and disordered eating in him, I could not truly empathise with his struggle. No matter how many empty platitudes I mouthed, deep down I felt he was fat because he wasn’t “trying hard enough.”

In Nigeria, we’re set to pay a high price too. Being able to feed your family burgers, baked beans, chips and sausages is still a status symbol; it means you’ve arrived. Yet, the increasing availability of processed food is bringing us the expanded waistlines and increasing rates of diabetes already to be found in the West. Only without their excellent healthcare systems.

I think it’s time for all of us to re-examine our relationship with these products. In the West, some governments are considering limiting children’s access to them – banning them from schools and limiting their advertising that targets kids. But I think the change needs to go much farther than that. We need to treat these products like the highly-addictive drugs that they are and either regulate them like tobacco or alcohol or ban them outright like marijuana. It’s the only way we can safeguard our health and the health of our children.


  1. Wonderful piece, Chinelo...especially as I happen to be one of those 'battling the bulge'. I have to share this piece...

  2. To be honest I've never understood sizeism. I'm an admirer of the "traditional African beauty ideal" even though I am technically lepa.

    Also, foods with HFCS are mostly unique to the US, because other countries do not use HFCS. So unless Nigerians are bringing in food from the US with HFCS, the addiction angle probably does not stand strong for us.

  3. Actually with globalization and the fact that countries tend to increase their imports of luxury goods as they get more affluent, foods with HFCS (and similar sugary additives like aspartame) are quite common all over the world.

    Nigeria does import quite a lot of processed food from the US (also the UK and increasingly from places like Turkey and South Africa). So I think we need to be aware of the full dangers of these products - even as we work to increase our physical activity.

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