Capitalizing Obesity

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Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Mon Apr 11, 2016 9:25 am

Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan [1]

Jerusalem and Montreal, April 2016 / Creative Commons

In his article, ‘Food Price Inflation as Redistribution’, Joseph Baines (2014) shows the intimate correspondence between differential profit and world hunger. Figure 1 below, reproduced from his article, portrays a systematic positive correlation between the relative income of the Agro-Trader Nexus (Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Deere, DuPont and Monsanto) compared to the Compustat 500 on the one hand and the number of undernourished people in the world on the other.
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The Other Side of Hunger

But the capitalization of food is a dialectical process. As Michael Harrington noted more than half a century ago in his seminal book The Other America (1962), the other side of affluence is poverty; and among the American poor, the other side of hunger is overweight and obesity.

Fifty years later, Harrington’s insight has grown into a global menace (for a detailed overview, see Albritton 2009). Figure 2 shows data from a long-term study published in The Lancet (Essati 2016). The data demonstrate that, for the first time in history, there are now more obese than undernourished people in the world (roughly 13% compared to 9% as of 2014), and it suggests that, looking forward, obesity is likely to pose a far greater health hazard than undernourishment. (Note the gender dimension: women tend to suffer more than men from both undernourishment and obesity, but the female-male disparity in the latter predicament is much greater than in the former.)
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There is a fundamental biological difference between undernourishment and obesity: while hunger drives the undernourished to eat more if they can, there is no parallel instinct propelling the obese to eat less. On the contrary. The human body, having evolved during the long Palaeolithic epoch of hunting and gathering, craves salt, sugar and fat. But this very craving – which was necessary for survival in Palaeolithic times – became destructive once salt, sugar and saturated fat grew abundant (Harris 1989; Diamond 2012: Ch. 11). And because humans have limited natural defences against their own cravings, obesity is now an easier to inflict – and potentially more profitable – form of capitalized sabotage than undernourishment ever was. So, in the end, although undernourishment and obesity are biological opposites, they share a basic social similarity: they are both instruments of power.

Power in Hunger

Hunger has been a central lever of power throughout history. The earliest state civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were made possible, first and foremost, by the domestication of grains, particularly barley. The abundance of grains produced by the workers and slaves of these societies helped sustain a triangular complex of palace-temple-army, which in turn fed and provided for – as well as threatened, organized and ruled – their underlying propertyless populations. The central role of food in this process is imprinted all over the artistic carvings and drawings of these early societies: they portray their rulers as large, weighty and often overwhelming, while the ruled are shown as small, skinny and hunched over.

The Middle Ages too were organized around food. In the feudal regimes of Europe and Japan – as well in the empires of China, the princely states of India and the caliphates of the Middle East – the rulers controlled the land or its produce, and, by extension, the peasants who cultivated it. Their main threat was expulsion or extraction: for the tillers, being kicked off the land or deprived of its crops often meant hunger, privation and early death.

The transition to capitalism didn’t change the basic equation, at least not initially. The new liberal individual was obsessed with income and wealth; but the reason for this obsession was still the looming threat of poverty and hunger – the ultimate ‘scarcity’ of the capitalist universe. According to many, it was the permanent threat of hunger, amplified by a growing enclosure movement, that propelled the feudal population into the burgeoning cities, thus kick-starting urbanization and helping usher the Industrial Revolution. Hunger also anchored the classical political economy of Ricardo, Malthus and Marx, where the value of commodities was said to hinge on subsistence wages. And if we are to judge by the era’s novelists – from Balzac and Dickens to Hugo, Zola and Maupassant – the menace of hunger remained front and centre throughout the Victorian era. In the visual arts, the rulers, just like in antiquity, were portrayed as fat, healthy and long-living, while the ruled appeared underweight, sickly and ready to die.

Communism too was ruled by hunger. The Russian and Chinese revolutions were supposedly fought for human liberty and dignity. But as the communist masses were soon to learn, their new historically materialistic rulers – much like their divine predecessors – were particularly keen on leveraging the caloric intake of their subjects, usually to the latter’s detriment. Those who didn’t comply ended up in labour camps and other correctional facilities, where meagre portions of wheat and rice spelt want, sickness and doom – and all that while their rulers, generals and bureaucrats, like oriental despots, displayed their opulent bodies and multiple chins in official speeches and victory parades.

Twentieth-century capitalism promised an end to this spectre of hunger. The classical subsistence-wage labourer was replaced by a rational neoclassical ‘agent’. Having climbed out of poverty, the new ‘representative’ agent was no longer content with little food and shabby shelter; he or she became a ‘sovereign consumer’ determined to maximize his or her individual ‘utility’. Later on, with the spreading ritual of capitalization, the neoclassical agents were again remodelled – this time as walking ‘human capitals’ set on augmenting their ‘net worth’. The lives of these agents are still driven by ‘scarcity’, or so they are being told. They remain haunted by unlimited wants far exceeding their limited resources, and they still fight for ‘survival’. But unlike before, their fight now is said to be fuelled by the fervour of greed and the fear of being left behind, not by the threat of hunger and the prospect of extinction.

Power in Obesity

But this sea-change hasn’t eliminated food as a key lever of power. Far from it. Food is still a crucial form of social control – only that now it comes in a very different guise. Whereas until recently – and even today in parts of China, South Asia and Africa – the main threat for the underlying population was having too little to eat, nowadays it is having too much. The poor, traditionally punished by hunger, are now much more likely to be penalized by obesity.

This massive, ongoing transformation is reshaping the heart, mind and body of the captalist subject. The undernourished, underweight, work-till-you-drop poor are gradually being replaced by their overfed, overweight, shop-till-you-drop descendants. And this inversion is hardly for the better. Although the adipose poor live longer than their scrawny predecessors, they are not necessarily healthier. They tend to suffer from non-communicable diseases – primarily diabetes, hypertension, strokes, cancer, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular ailments (Diamond 2012: Ch. 11). And having been born into a hyper-capitalized complex of cheap industrial food, accessible pharmaceutical drugs and a highly intoxicating mass media, many of them are gradually losing their ability to control their inflating bodies and liberate their captured souls.

Ironically, this obesity revolution has been driven by wheat, rice, corn and potatoes – the very same crops that leveraged food power in the earlier hunger era. The plants that forced and lured hunters and gatherers into centralized state structures are now used – together with numerous supplements, both chemical and mental – to enslave capitalist subjects to their own irresistible cravings. And as the sedated, junk-food eating subjects become bigger and heavier, their previously ‘fat cat’ capitalist rulers eat organic, go to the gym and grow leaner and meaner. . . .

The Questions

There is nothing automatic, let alone natural, about this dialectic of food, poverty and power. The intertwined evolution of hunger and obesity is intimately connected to differential profit and accumulation. Both hunger and obesity represent complex levers of strategic sabotage, both get capitalized, and therefore both can be examined qualitatively and quantitatively. The capitalized dollar magnitude of this process – involving food, energy, pharmaceuticals, advertising and the mass media to the tune of trillions – makes it one of the key processes of modern capitalism, and therefore crucial to understand.

How has this remarkable hunger-to-obesity transformation evolved? What forms of capital drive the obesity epidemic, including its counter-movements of anti-obesity drugs, non-communicable disease treatments, diets, surgical fixes and psychological interventions? What are the material/ideal technologies that shift the world toward ever more destructive yet profitable forms of mass overfeeding? What policies and legislation have supported this shift, and how have they been imposed on the world’s population? And most importantly, what are the qualitative and quantitative links, if any, between these various strategies of sabotage on the one hand and differential profit and capitalization on the other?


[1] Reposted from here. Shimshon Bichler teaches political economy at colleges and universities in Israel. Jonathan Nitzan teaches political economy at York University in Canada. All of their publications are available for free on The Bichler & Nitzan Archives. Research for this article was partly supported by the SSHRC. The article is licenced under Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada).


Albritton, Robert. 2009. Let Them Eat Junk. How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity. London and New York: Pluto Press. Distributed in the United States of America exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan.

Baines, Joseph. 2014. Food Price Inflation as Redistribution: Towards a New Analysis of Corporate Power in the World Food System. New Political Economy 19 (1, January): 79-112.

Diamond, Jared M. 2012. The World Until Yesterday. What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? New York: Viking.

Essati, Majid, et. al. 2016. Trends in Adult Body-mass Index in 200 Countries from 1975 to 2014: A Pooled Analysis of 1698 Population-Based Measurement Studies with 19·2 Million Participants. The Lancet 387 (10026, April 2): 1377-1396.

Harrington, Michael. 1962. The Other America. Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Harris, Marvin. 1989. Our Kind. Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row.
Last edited by Jonathan Nitzan on Thu Apr 14, 2016 11:11 pm, edited 4 times in total.
Jonathan Nitzan
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Scott » Wed Apr 13, 2016 7:21 am

I question how obesity reflects what is claimed for it in this article.

I have not read the original research by Baines. However, in my opinion, obesity is certainly not as universal as the politics of capital. In other words, there are relatively affluent, Western, capitalist societies where obesity is a non-issue.

Societies as diverse as Japan to France. It seems to me that obesity is primarily an American phenomenon. It is essentially cultural. Yes, it does demonstrate its potential to bleed over borders - for example, new generations of Japanese tend to be larger and more developed and they do tend to be the highest number that frequent the Japanese version of fast food. Yet in Japan, obesity is hardly an issue. The shaming occurs in the other direction. Thin young women obsess over their "body fat" and addict themselves to thinning products and popular diet methods. Skinniness is neither an indicator of poverty or threat of starvation nor an alternative to obesity. It is its own status. More interestingly, when young Japanese exit that culture and enter a new one the status immediately evaporates. For example, I have met young Japanese women that spend a year in Canada on a work-holiday visa. While in Canada they adapt to Canadian norms in appearance, including body fat levels. They plump up and easily pass as a healthy Canadian. However, when preparing to return to Japan, they begin to worry over their "excessive" body weight. Once returning to Japan they have transformed to those social norms and healthy body fat returns as a "problem".

It seems that, in other cultures where bigger is better like in the US, the status is not in being obese as there is much "fat shaming" in American culture. My impression is that it is conformity to social norms that grows the tree. Yes, profit-seeking interests plant and cultivate the seed. But these things are not difficult to turn off. I think I object to considering obesity - or its other extreme - in the same terms as even Victorian industrial-age issues.

French culture is known of course for its delight in food. They do not deny themselves, budget permitting. Yet, again, the culture dictates quite a bit to what is consumed and how. Obesity is not a wide demographic concern in France. As likely it isn't in several other G7 countries.

For this study to be successful it will have to watch how these issues play out, or not, across a useful sample of societies.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby PhilHoward » Wed Apr 13, 2016 11:23 am

I would agree with Scott that obesity and hunger are most often collateral damage resulting from increasing capitalist power, not (typically) the explicit goal. True, some cultures have been more resistant to capitalist strategies to change food consumption patterns in the more profitable directions - in the U.S. recent immigrants from Mexico are more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables, and buy less ultra processed foods. Bichler and Nitzan also raise questions about policy - although agricultural subsidies are much higher in the EU, they are directed to a greater diversity of crops (and livestock), while in the U.S. they are concentrated in crops that have been implicated in the rise of obesity. These issues are very complex and multi-faceted, so I agree that cross-societal comparisons would be essential.

There is a rich literature addressing some aspects of the questions raised by Bichler and Nitzan, but not from a capital as power perspective. However, insights from researchers that assume capitalists are profit maximizing, rather than differential profit seeking, can still be useful. Here are a few examples (I have not yet read Albritton):

Wallinga, D. (2010). Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary. Health Affairs, 29(3), 405-410.

PLOS Medicine (2012) special issue on “Big Food”

Wilson, Anthony (2013). The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating.

One of the most interesting articles (and one that I assign to my undergraduate students) is by a New York Times reporter, David Moss. His book is “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” but most of the key points are fortunately found in a NYT Magazine excerpt: ... d=all&_r=0

He interviews scientists who engineer the perfect “bliss point” to make foods with the “greatest amount of crave.” For chips this means designing a break point at four pounds of pressure per square inch. Moss and another reporter (Melanie Warner) who wrote a similar book, “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” found that a number of these people admit that they refuse to eat the products they make. Both books also explore the success and dubious ethics of marketing to children.

A recent study estimates that more than half of calories and about 90% of sugars consumed in the U.S. are from ultra-processed foods ( Warner notes that these food have much higher profit margins than foods that are not composed of industrially transformed, highly subsidized commodities, such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oils and milk protein concentrate. I always point out that these are ingredients you could never make in your own kitchen, and are linked to numerous diet-related diseases. These are also the foods that are marketed most heavily, and disproportionately targeted to vulnerable populations, such as children, women, low-income households and ethnic minorities.

A few years ago I worked with some colleagues to look at the distribution of refrigerated, ready to drink sweetened beverages in my metro area, and we found more varieties available in low-income and ethnic minority neighborhoods. This was particularly obvious when we compared different outlets that were part of the same large chain (but conversely they offered more fresh fruit and vegetable varieties in their higher income locations).

All of these issues are increasingly coming to light, aided by the popularity of books (e.g. Michael Pollan) and documentaries that critique the current food system. Not coincidentally, many industries contributing to obesity are facing declining sales, and struggling to increase their market caps. Fast food firms have moved merged and moved headquarters to reduce tax rates, or expanded the hours of their breakfast menus, for example. The two largest beer firms in the world are planning to combine, but this won’t stem the loss of sales to craft brewers in industrialized countries. Some ultra-processed foods have been reformulated to remove trans fats, artificial colors and even the number of ingredients, largely in response to organized consumer demands.

These trends suggest that capitalists will require new strategies to increase their power. This may be an opportunity to better understand the linkages between qualitative changes and their quantitative impacts on capitalization.

More and more people, even in the industry (see the Moss article) are making comparisons between processed foods and tobacco. Perhaps a lawsuit similar to the one that disrupted Big Tobacco will uncover Big Food’s internal documents and shed more light on their strategies. In the meantime, we could look at the British American Tobacco document archive for some institutional perspectives on marketing “craveable" products. ... uotes.html
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Wed Apr 13, 2016 11:49 am

Scott wrote:. . . in my opinion, obesity is certainly not as universal as the politics of capital. In other words, there are relatively affluent, Western, capitalist societies where obesity is a non-issue.

It is certainly true that obesity is affected by a whole range of genetic, ecological and social conditions, including ‘culture’. And Japan is indeed an outlier, although France is not (see respective country profiles here:

However, according to Essati et al. (2016), the direction of the process is unambiguous: between 1975 and 2014, all 200 countries have experienced rising obesity, rising severe obesity, and rising morbid obesity; and these increases have been recorded for both men and women:

Obesity (>30kg/m2):
Severe Obesity (>35kg/m2):
Morbid Obesity (>40kg/m2):

The fact that male and female obesity is rising in all countries, without exception, cannot be easily attributed to genetic, ecological and social differences. It is much more likely the result of something common to all of them.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Justin Podur » Wed Apr 13, 2016 8:08 pm

Thanks for this. Understanding obesity as part of a system of power is a very important thing to do.

This article by George Monbiot changed my thinking on obesity:

Raj Patel's book, Stuffed and Starved, is also along the lines that you're discussing here.

The Spirit Level, a book on inequality with a lot of statistical evidence, has a chapter on how obesity is solidly linked to inequality.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby leedoran » Wed Apr 13, 2016 8:28 pm

Thanks so much for this,BN! I totally love this little teaser Jonathan. As the commenters so far suggest to me, this thing has legs. I can't wait to see how it grows and evolves and morphs (sorry!)...

best to all,

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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby blairfix » Thu Apr 14, 2016 8:27 am

Most of the comments so far have focused on the relation between obesity and food intake. This neglects the role of the metabolic rate, which is heavily affected by activity levels. It is possible to have a very high caloric intake and not become obese --- athletes being the prime example.

The rise in obesity is paralleled by a decline in activity rates among the general population. This is in large part due to the replacement of manual human labor with fossil fuel driven machine labor. In previous generations, most people had a job that involved fairly vigorous effort for long periods of the day. Now most jobs are sedentary. Exercise is no longer a "natural" part of people's lives --- it must be added voluntarily.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby PhilHoward » Fri Apr 15, 2016 12:32 pm

In today's news, token public relations-friendly actions that don't threaten sales of all of this firm's products:

"Mars Food plans to label some of its Dolmio pasta sauces, macaroni cheese and other products as fit for consumption only once a week due to high levels of salt, sugar or fat.

The scheme is part of a larger initiative by the privately held U.S. food company to encourage healthier eating at a time when large food multinationals, or Big Food, are coming under increasing pressure from public health advocates and regulators struggling to fight a growing obesity epidemic.

The plan, however, does not extend to Mars' chocolate or sweets businesses, whose brands include M&M's, Snickers and Starburst." ... ce-n556481

To Blair's point, what is the source for the claim that energy expenditure is decreasing? A number of studies have contested this:
"As physical activity expenditure has not declined over the same period that obesity rates have increased dramatically, and daily energy expenditure of modern man is in line with energy expenditure in wild mammals, it is unlikely that decreased expenditure has fuelled the obesity epidemic."
Westerterp, K. R., & Speakman, J. R. (2008). Physical activity energy expenditure has not declined since the 1980s and matches energy expenditures of wild mammals. International Journal of Obesity, 32(8), 1256-1263.

The reasons for increasing obesity rates certainly include increased energy consumption, but there is growing recognition that obesogens (synthetic chemicals that increase risk of weight gain, such as phthalates and BPA) may play a strong role as well - another example of collateral damage, although one that is still not well understood.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Apr 15, 2016 12:53 pm

PhilHoward wrote:To Blair's point, what is the source for the claim that energy expenditure is decreasing?

Church, Timothy S., Diana M. Thomas, Catrine Tudor-Locke, Peter T. Katzmarzyk, Conrad P. Earnest, Ruben Q. Rodarte, Corby K. Martin, Steven N. Blair, and Claude Bouchard. 2011. Trends Over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity. PLoS ONE 6 (5): 1-7.

This study suggests that:

Over the last 50 years in the U.S. there has been a progressive decrease in the percent of individuals employed in occupations that require moderate intensity physical activity. We estimate that daily occupation-related energy expenditure has decreased by more than 100 calories, and this reduction in energy expenditure accounts for a significant portion of the increase in mean U.S. body weight for women and men over the last 5 decades.
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Re: Capitalizing Obesity

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Sat Apr 16, 2016 7:37 pm

PhilHoward wrote:I would agree with Scott that obesity and hunger are most often collateral damage resulting from increasing capitalist power, not (typically) the explicit goal.

There is a potential confusion here.

In capitalism, the ultimate goal -- at least in our view -- is differential capitalized power. Undernourishment and obesity are mere levers of power. Capitalists may be personally indifferent to or even loath undernourishment and obesity, and they are likely to deny seeking them even if they do. But insofar as their strategies require and result in undernourishment, as Baines shows in the case of the Agro-Trader Nexus, or in rising obesity -- which is the key question to be answered here -- doesn't that mean that undernourishment and obesity are part and parcel of their explicit goal?

Most capitalists claim to dislike, oppose and seek to eradicate unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, inflation, war, corruption, instability, terror, crime, pollution, climate change, etc. (see The Enlightened Capitalist, 2014). And some of them may indeed feel the world would be better off without these ills. But if the quest for differential capitalization forces them to amplify these processes, what difference does it make what they think?
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