The Myth of Personal Responsibility?


Last night David and I went to see “Fed Up”, a documentary about the food industry, government and the obesity epidemic.

We do a lot of reading on this topic, so while we figured that for us the movie would probably be preaching to the choir, our interest had been piqued last week when we saw a segment about the movie on Real Time With Bill Maher.  His guest was a pediatric endocrinologist who had something to do with the movie (although I don’t remember exactly what).  As we listened to his interview it seemed that the intention of the filmmakers was to trace the interplay of events over the past several decades that has given rise to an ever-growing population of unhealthy and overweight Americans.    The culprit, of course,  is the unholy alliance that developed between corporations (i.e. the food industry) and government, which results in the production of processed junk food masquerading as real food that is then relentlessly marketed to us. Yup, that’s pretty much how I see it too. But then this doctor stated that the idea that people are personally responsible for their state of poor health is a “myth”.

Hmmm.  I believe that taking personal responsibility is central to being both physically and mentally healthy.  From a psychological perspective, we simply can’t change that which we can’t own.  So,whatever initial reaction I had to the “myth” comment I was intrigued enough to see how the documentary actually approached this issue.

I  learned quite a bit from this movie and I believe that anyone interested in improving their own health would benefit from seeing it.  It is thought-provoking and intelligent and it helped me better understand the interplay between  special interest groups and government and the intractability of the profit motive.

The  movie focuses on the stories of three severely overweight children and branches out to examine the external forces that contribute to their persistent weight gain.  Relentless corporate advertising and marketing, special interest lobbying in Washington, the proliferation of processed sugar-laden”non food”,  lack of honest education regarding nutrition and schools selling out to fast food companies are all discussed.  Here are some factoids that were new for me:

Many studies and nutritional recommendations remain hidden from the public because of special interest lobbying.  Consider this  example:


Have you ever noticed that the % Daily Value number for the sugar on a label isn’t listed?  I hadn’t. In this case the information wouldn’t have been much of a big deal with a serving of sauce containing only 3 grams of sugar (which is why we chose it).  But in many, if not most prepared items the sugar content would be so high, that percentages would routinely top 100%.  This omission is the work of the sugar lobby and elected officials who do their bidding.

Next I was surprised to learn that this,


Michelle Obama’s initiative to address America’s childhood obesity problem (who could object to that, right?) was severely curtailed.  The “Let’s Move” tagline originally referred to both moving the food industry into healthier territory regarding both their products and methods for marketing to kids as well as starting programs to help kids become more physically active.   Well, she’s pretty much just focusing on exercise now.  Wow, the first lady was effectively muzzled.

The movie provided example after example of our government siding with corporations instead of the health of our citizens.  The picture is stunningly bleak.  It’s no wonder that the former commissioner of the FDA summed it up by stating simply “we’re toast”.  And this brings me back to the personal responsibility piece.

Now that I’ve seen this movie, I think that the filmmakers were documenting a problem rather than exploring solutions on either a micro or a macro level, although at times solutions were implied.  Parents, who purchase and prepare the food for their kids were dealt with very gently, more like victims themselves.  Perhaps these explorations were beyond the scope of this movie,  but I think it’s more likely that a pervasive sense of hopelessness in this David and Goliath scenario led to the “myth” comment.  I think the doctor was actually trying to help people not see their weight issues as personal failings and  take on more responsibility than is rightly theirs given the circumstances.  Certainly the self-loathing and shame that accompanies obesity is pervasive enough.

But in the end I come to a different conclusion that is all about personal responsibility.  Because at this very moment that’s really all that’s available to us.  It’s not about willpower but about our personal will.  Are we willing to educate ourselves and our children about nutrition if our government and schools won’t do it?   Are we willing to learn to cook if we don’t know how?   Are we willing to walk past the candy near the check out at Ace Hardware, Joann’s Fabrics, Target and Bed and Bath? Are we willing to model this for our kids who are endlessly barraged with different messages?  It’s not easy for me and I doubt it’s easy for anyone as “Fed Up” effectively illustrates.  But the alternative is succumbing to unhealthy unhappy lives and watching our children do the same.

I think it’s worth a try.



6 thoughts on “The Myth of Personal Responsibility?

  1. I saw the Bill Maher episode but not the movie. I’ll check it out. Thx for the tip.
    In general, I feel so much of our food behavior is learned from our family culture. It never crosses my mind to buy Hot Pockets or Pop Tarts (just because they’re gross and not because of any political food agenda). Growing up in an Italian family, there was never an issue about processed foods. Everything was homemade. The issue is more about portion control. You know, the message was eat, eat, eat! In today’s environment, if you haven’t grown up with cooking homemade, real food, the message so often is about buying the “right” processed foods to be a “good mother”. What’s in your kid’s lunch and is it “cool”? Of course, “cool” gets defined to our kids with all the marketing they see. I still remember as a kid that I had to beg my mom to by HoHos. I only got the “good” junk food at my friend’s homes. Go figure. 🙂
    I often think of the look on Jeff Bridges’ face in “Starman” as he eats our Earth food for the first time… can’t tell wether he’s going to throw up or succumb to the ecstasy of some of our chemical food drugs.


    • All good points Lis. The biggest hurdle for me has been really listening to my body which doesn’t want to be full of chemicals and junk and doesn’t want to overdo it. Love your Starman reference and looking forward to hearing what you think about the movie.


  2. I haven’t seen this movie, but the topic is of great interest. My Foundation funds a “healthy eating and active living” initiative which is largely about making heathy choices easier. The focus is on changing the environment. For example, offer apples at the school cafeteria check out counter, so the healthy choice is there.
    We also fund a fresh produce purchasing program for soup kitchens and food pantries, so they can serve/distribute healthier options.
    Still, I’m all about taking responsibility for my choices!


    • I know that about you! You must feel good about the work you do Pam. You are one of society’s warriors! Do you have any sense whether kids will actually go for the healthier stuff when the junk is also offered?


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