The Big Business of Obesity and Shame

Photo by Kenny Eliason

Manufacturers of new weight loss drugs are salivating at the prospect of profit.

What Americans eat, how they diet and exercise, the sugar content of their sodas, and the high fructose corn syrup in their processed foods have long been objects of endless gambling on Wall Street. Now, with drugs like Mounjaro, Wegovy, and Ozempic, new vistas of exploitation have opened up.

It’s not a conspiracy theory that food addiction is a tool of corporate profiteering. Consider that tobacco companies, upon being regulated out of addictive smoking, turned their sights onto addictive eating.

“In America, the steepest increase in the prevalence of hyper-palatable foods occurred between 1988 and 2001 — the era when [tobacco conglomerates] Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds owned the world’s leading food companies,” Washington Post health columnist Anahad O’Connor wrote last year. “The foods that they sold were far more likely to be hyper-palatable than similar foods not owned by tobacco companies.”

Many of these ultra-processed foods are specially marketed to children, which in turn can change their brain chemistry to desire those foods for life. Today we would be appalled at the idea of marketing tobacco to children, but the same companies pushed addictive foods onto kids. And even though Big Tobacco is no longer in the business of food, its practices remain widespread.

As obesity rates have risen, there’s an all-too-familiar blame game that individualizes the harm being caused by a system that thrives off addiction.

Doctors warn people struggling to manage their weight to restrict their calories and do vigorous exercise. Reality shows like The Biggest Loser have cemented the narrative that obesity is the result of individuals not managing their urges to eat. And American pop culture’s obsession with unattainable thinness generates shame spirals and further fuels the idea that people are fat simply because they’re too weak to control themselves.

Meanwhile, there are few if any government regulations on unhealthy foods in this country. Instead, the solutions being offered are individualized, often spawning lucrative industries of their own.

Alongside the aggressive marketing of hyper-palatable foods is a massively profitable weight loss industry that preys upon individual shame to the tune of more than $60 billion a year. In fact, some of the same companies pushing high-calorie foods are in the business of weight loss.

Today, the manufacturers of weight-loss drugs are clear winners in the changing landscape of food consumption and weight, charging tens of thousands of dollars for a year’s supply — and ensuring that only the wealthy have access to the thinness our culture celebrates.

Ozempic, for example, could cost only $57 a year and its manufacturer Novo Nordisk would still reap a profit. Instead, it’s being sold in the U.S. for a whopping $11,600 a year. Not only do these prices keep these drugs away from low-income people struggling to manage their weight, but also out of the hands of diabetics, whom the drugs were originally meant for.

Anticipating that prices will come down once the elite market is saturated, drug manufacturers are busy ensuring their future market share by pushing doctors to prescribe the drugs widely.

One obesity expert named Dr. Lee Kaplan, who received $1.4 million from Novo Nordisk, told his fellow physicians: “We are going to have to use these medications…for as long as the body wants to have obesity.” What he doesn’t say is that there will be obesity for as long as food manufacturers market and sell junk foods.

Ultimately, our individual appetites and waistlines are pawns in the highly lucrative game of profit. The ultra-processed food industry is becoming symbiotic with the weight-loss drug industry. The former ensures we eat poorly and the latter is there to feed off our shame.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates.