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.