Obesity, a disease of poverty

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When a Parliamentary select committee and the tabloid press joined forces to condemn childhood obesity, using the example of a 3 year old who 'choked on her own fat', they did not care one jot for either the truth that she was suffering from a genetic condition, nor for the feelings of her parents. When other journalists scooped the fact that the campaign had been whipped up using the case of a victim of genetic disease and not bad parenting, this only served to keep the issue in the public eye for longer, and with it the condemnation of poor families.

A brief investigation of the facts of the question shows that obesity is a product of poverty, hunger and stunted growth; that it is associated with low birth weight and chronic disease as well as behavioural dysfunction. "The underlying issue is the malnutrition of vulnerable families in both senses, not enough and the wrong sorts of food. The malnourished conception, pregnancy and low birthweight of the babies of poor mothers are scandalous examples" (Prof Michael A Crawford, Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, letter to The Times 7.6.04). "Obesity is usually now associated with poverty, even in developing countries. Relatively new data suggest that abdominal obesity in adults, with its associated enhanced morbidity, occurs particularly in those who had lower birth weights and early childhood stunting " (James et al, Obesity Research November 2001).

The reason for obesity lies in economic necessity: "poverty and food insecurity [hunger] are associated with lower food expenditures. A reduction in diet costs in linear programming models leads to high-fat, energy-dense diets that are similar in composition to those consumed by low income groups" (Drewnowski and Specter, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 2004).

These professionals have collated the statistics that show the relationship between poverty, obesity and ill-health; they may even rail against the inadequacy of 'minimum incomes'. However, it is necessary to understand that the causal chain between poverty, poor diet, inadequate clothing and disease is a product of capitalism, as Marx had already shown in the middle of the 19th century. "The use of products is determined by the social conditions in which the consumers find themselves placed, and these conditions themselves are based on class antagonism.

Cotton, potatoes and sprits are objects of the most common use. Potatoes have engendered scrofula(1)� finally, spirits have got the upper hand of beer and wine, although spirits used as an alimentary substance are everywhere recognised to be poison. For a whole century, governments struggled in vain against the European opium; economics prevailed, and dictated its orders to consumption.

Why are cotton, potatoes and spirits the pivots of bourgeois society? Because the least amount of labour is needed to produce them, and, consequently, they have the lowest price� in a society founded on poverty the poorest products have the fatal prerogative of being used by the greatest number" (The Poverty of Philosophy).

Technological development may have led to potatoes, cotton and spirits being replaced by crisps, nylon and fizzy drinks, scrofula with obesity and heart disease, but the capitalist relation remains. The answer lies not in a campaign to educate the poor, nor even an appeal for higher 'minimum incomes' but, as Marx showed, the struggle for a new society: "In a future society, in which class antagonism will have ceased, in which there will no longer be any classes, use will no longer be determined by minimum time of production; but the time of production devoted to different articles will be determined by the degree of their social utility."


(1) We now know that scrofula is a form of TB, but it is still associated with poverty, overcrowding and poor diet. Since the re-emergence of the open crisis at the end of the 1960s, TB has again been on the increase in Britain's inner cities, but also across the world. It is just one example of the return of 19th century diseases today, along with new ones such as AIDS.