Cultural Taboos: Food

I can make a mental list of all of the taboos in American cultural right now, and I can tell you that prior to this semester, food wouldn’t have made it on that list. But as I have recently learned, it is. Here’s why food and obesity are an American cultural taboo, and why they are especially risky for children.


One of the most serious health concerns in America today is obesity. There are seventy-eight million obese adults in America, and those seventy-eight million are all at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Obesity has reached epidemic levels in both children and adults. Public figures such as the First Lady Michelle Obama, who started the “Let’s Move!” campaign, have tried to bring awareness to this issue, in part because of the dire need for action; because at the current rate one in three children born after 2000 will have diabetes ( Michelle Obama’s campaign promotes healthy eating and physical activity as well as parental involvement but for some people, however, this cry for help falls on deaf ears.

Many people selfishly believe that if someone is overweight, he or she must simply eat less and exercise more. It is so easy to think that someone who is overweight or obese is in that state by their own doing. Yet if it were that simple, would obesity persist at such an epidemic level?

The myth that calories taken in will cancel out calories put out has perpetuated much of the pressure that is placed on those who are overweight or obese. Children torment themselves by trying to stick to this diet plan which yields no results. Calories in versus calories out is an unrealistic mantra Americans have held tightly to since the 1970s when scientist Jean Mayer first declared that “lack of exercise must be related to weight gain” (Fed Up). However, this is not true. “Even if we have plenty of evidence to the contrary – no matter how much of our lives we’ve spent consciously trying to eat less and exercise more without success – it’s more likely that we’ll question our own judgment and our own willpower than we will this notion that our adiposity is determined by how many calories we consume and expend” (Taubes, 6).

Childhood obesity is a taboo in American culture because of the complex factors that contribute to it, allowing many to turn a blind eye. Americans want to believe that obesity is caused only by lack of exercise and over-eating, but the exploitation of food by food corporations has played a significant role in turning this problem into a nightmare for many children.

fed up

Fed Up (2014) is a documentary about the obesity epidemic in America. It exposes the underlying issues regarding obesity, particularly childhood obesity, which major food corporations have continued to exploit. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig, Fed Up is narrated by Katie Couric, an American journalist who has reported on the growing obesity epidemic for the majority of her career.

The documentary profiles four obese American teenagers for two years, showing their daily struggles of trying to lose weight, the sadness and often helplessness their parents feel, and their own emotional scars of having battled obesity for the better part of their lives. One girl, age twelve, was active all her life and very involved in recreational sports and continually tried to eat healthfully, yet she was obese. She was frustrated to tears when asked the question of why she had not lost any weight, and was unable to produce an answer.

Although the children in the documentary have tried to adjust their diets to include mainly low-fat or low-calorie foods, what they do not realize is that these foods may be low in fat and low in calories but they are also very high in sugar. This tactic used by food companies of adding sugar to make low-fat and low-calorie foods taste better is just one that Fed Up uncovers. Misleading food labels then in turn make the processes of selecting and buying food difficult for parents.

New challenges now present themselves in terms of not just learning to read nutrition labels but in learning to understand them. For example, what are the differences between sucrose, fructose, and glucose, and why are they in nearly everything? This is one of the questions parents must ask themselves, and research to decide whether or not these ingredients will present a problem for their child. It is wrong that parents have had to learn to become detectives to find out what really is in their children’s food.  Fed Up exposes that fact that food corporations, such as Coca Cola, oftentimes have partnerships and contracts with public schools, universities and even research institutes. This allows them to advertise and sell products to these establishments. Due to persuasive marketing campaigns aimed at children throughout their lives, many people feel that they have grown up with companies like Coca Cola and they see them as something good, and familiar. This is precisely why no one would expect that Coca Cola brand foods and beverages are the root of the problem. Yet as Katie Couric reveals throughout the documentary, this is how those very such companies have succeeded in extending their roots in schools and homes, creating billions of dollars for themselves and leaving obese, sick children behind.

Many people question how Americans have allowed this problem to worsen. As Tsai, et. al state in “Changes in Obesity Awareness, Obesity Identification, and Self-Assessment of Health: Results from a Statewide Public Education Campaign” in the American Journal of Health Education, the fact that childhood obesity is so widespread may in fact be causing “individuals” to be “desensitized to weight as a personal health concern” (342). The fact that obese children is something Americans are likely to see on a daily basis may in fact be the very reason that they are no longer noticed as an anomaly, rather they are now regarded as the norm. The fact that “35% of U.S. adults age 20 and older have prediabetes, an epidemic that is almost entirely attributable to obesity in adults” is shocking, yet it is the new normal (Tsai, et. al 343). “There is broad agreement that a multipronged strategy including better education, improved prevention and treatment, community engagement, and public policy aimed at improving eating and physical activity is needed to ameliorate the obesity problem” (Tsai, et. al 343).

Certainly a strong group effort on both the state and federal level would help, but concerned parents need to know the full story of what is in the food their children are eating when they are at school, and what is in the food they are buying at grocery stores. As seen in Fed Up, food corporations that make millions and millions of dollars, companies such as Pepsi, General Mills, Tyson, and, Kellogg among many others are simply unlikely to significantly change their products for the sake of children’s health because it would mean that they would lose money.

Arguably one of the most promising ways to help end the taboo on childhood obesity and increase awareness about health is through preventative teaching to young children. While some people may say that five years old is too young to be taking lessons on health, “dietary habits are established early in life, making preschool children an important target for nutrition education” (Carraway-Stage, 52). In fact, “almost all public-health researchers and clinicians agree that prevention could be the key strategy for controlling the current epidemic of obesity” (Dehgnan, et. al). Although parents, teachers and caregivers cannot be expected to become nutrition experts overnight, there are ways they can model healthy habits for young children now, and positively influence them without even realizing it. Some of the factors that contribute to healthy eating are “likeability, peer modeling, reward-based interventions, taste-testing, hands-on experiences, and presence of caregivers at evening meals” (Smith, et. al, 316).

Multi-component programs that incorporate these factors are likely to show positive results and increased healthy eating among children. If young children see their parents constantly buying food from fast food restaurants or buying frozen meals that are filled with preservatives, they will follow suite and adopt the same lifestyle practices. However, as shown in Fed Up, the best tactic is to switch from buying prepared food to cooking fresh food. Right now, this can be problematic. It is difficult to eat healthfully in America. Fresh food and organic food is costly, and there is limited availability in many states. For example, a great place to buy healthy, fresh food is Whole Foods. For a concerned parent who wants their children to eat better, his or her first step is in locating a grocery that sells fresh, healthy food. Whole Foods groceries are not located on every block or highway exist like McDonald’s is, so this alone will take planning. Secondly, when he or she arrives at the store they no doubt will be shocked at just how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables are. An unfortunate reality is that fresh and healthy food is expensive; and, when compared to how cheap fast food and junk food are, it can seem unreasonable to spend so much on just a handful of ingredients. Why would the parent go out of their way to drive to Whole Foods and pay more money for fresh food when they can just as easily and more cheaply buy their children fast food from the drive-thru or some snacks at the local convenient store around the block? Most parents are not nutritionists, and they do not have the time or resources to learn how to become one.

Gary Taubes
Fascinating book by Gary Taubes who was featured in Fed Up


Many countries around the world including Denmark, Canada and Mexico, have started banning fast food commercials, taxing junk food and soda, and limiting junk food advertisements during the peak hours that children watch television. It is time for Americans to follow the lead of these countries. It is imperative that Americans realize that food corporations are not their friends, they are not always looking out for consumers. They are companies for a reason, and that reason is to make money. They will continue to put children’s health at risk time and again unless parents, teachers, and even governmental officials step in to provide awareness and make the necessary changes to ultimately create a better future for these children.


 Works Cited

Carraway-Stage, Virginia, et. al. Understanding the State of Nutrition Education in the Head Start Classroom: A Qualitative Approach, American Journal of Health Education, 45:1, 52-62, DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2013.853000

Dehghan, Mahshid, et. al. Childhood Obesity, Prevalence, and Prevention. Nutrition Journal 2005, 4:24 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-4-24.

Fed Up Dir. Stephanie Soechtig. 2014.

Let’s Move Campaign

Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Tsai, Adam G., et. al. Changes in Obesity Awareness, Obesity Identification, and Self-Assessment of Health: Results from a Statewide Public Education Campaign, American Journal of Health Education, 45:6, 342-350 (2014). DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2014.945668

Smith, Emily, et. al. The Impact of a Fruit and Vegetable Intervention on Children and Caregivers. American Journal of Health Education, 46:6, 316-322, DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2015.1077487

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