Food Poisoning: How Capitalism is Making Us Sick

May 23, 2023

For me, bulimia began with a box of Pop-Tarts. 

It was midsummer. What I remember most was the screaming sounds of insects and the heat that shivered around the shapes of things. Summer boredom–the sort of boredom only a child can experience–fell over the world. 

I sat sprawled on a tree branch, reading a book, when the thought came to mind–the box of Pop-Tarts in the pantry.  I’m not sure where I got the idea. Maybe I wanted freedom from my body.  I was eleven years old and starting to feel pain in places I didn’t know existed. Or maybe I was already hooked on the triple threat of sugar, fats, and salt wrapped up in shiny foil packaging. Maybe I was doomed from the beginning. 

Whatever it was that caused me to steal and then consume the entire box of Pop-Tarts was the same thing that provoked me into purging–and then repeating the process all over again. What I remember most is the warmth in my body; the profound dullness into which I fell; the thick, chalky pastry on my tongue, the dribble of jam between my teeth. It was meditative. I was entranced by the repetitive movements, the ritualistic quality of the experience itself. In that hypnotic state, I brought hand to mouth again and again. And as I began to fill up, it was as though I were slowly submerged in water, cocooned in soft pressure, held in space by the weight of it, finally. There was no boredom, no restlessness; I was caught at last in the present moment, inhabiting it fully, free of the familiar tug of the past and the pull of the future. It was a feeling that I knew I was destined to follow, wherever it may lead. I followed that feeling for well over a decade—until it peaked into a $ 300-a-day habit that left me sick and suffering. 

I wasn’t alone. Binge eating disorder is the single most common type, affecting over 3% of the population. Together, binge eating disorder and bulimia affect over 5% of the American population—and that’s only those diagnosed. The criteria for binge eating disorder are relatively straightforward–and they implicate more of us than would seem. Binge eating consists of:

  • Eating a greater amount of food than most people would within a limited period
  • Feeling a sense of compulsion or loss of control around food 
  • Feelings of distress and/or self-loathing around food. 

Historically, eating disorders have been widely interpreted as a personal issue–a chemical flaw, a genetic curse. Historically, we treated eating disorder patients with methodologies grounded in the primary of the self. But binge eating disorder has no history. The behavior did not emerge as a significant pattern in public health until the mid-1950s–the heydey of the agribusiness boom—when it was first defined by psychiatrist Albert Stunkard. Since then, it has become a veritable epidemic. 

Overeating—and its attendant consequences on health and well-being–-are as American as apple pie. You’ve heard it all before. Nearly 42% of us are obese. Heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes–all related to diet–are the leading causes of preventable deaths among Americans. On the other hand, an oversupply of foods devoid of nutrition has reintroduced malnutrition as a public health problem. The rising cost of food has left 12% of households food insecure. In the meantime, eating disorders of all stripes are on the rise. From overeating to starvation diets, we’re witnessing a global health crisis unfolding before our eyes. 

Clearly, the methods in which we’ve placed our faith are failing. According to experts, the recovery rate for eating disorders is dismal: between 30% and 40% with intensive, invasive treatment. Even for those of us who aren’t disordered eaters, diets, in the main, fail to meet our needs. 97% of dieters regain the weight they lost–and then some. Something’s not right.

We’ve been placing our attention in the wrong place, prioritizing psychological and genetic factors in our assessment and treatment of food-related disorders rather than taking a holistic assessment of the global conditions that have led us here. In America, a profound culture of individualism has left us myopic about the collective issues that shape our approach to food. Our notions of meritocracy–the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps myth” has led us to invest in self-centered approaches to healing and recovery, approaches that do little but reinforce the status quo. When we neglect to examine the social and economic norms and trends that contribute to disordered eating, we also miss our opportunity to get well. 

Disordered eating is contextual. Binge eating disorder was virtually nonexistent prior to the development of the modern industrial global food system. Eating disorders are most prominent in developed, hyper-connected countries like the United States. They are most common among middle-class and affluent women. And they are inextricably tied to the context in which they emerge. According to researchers, one of the predictors of disordered eating is stress–a maladaptive response to unacceptable conditions in the outer world. Additionally, a Eurocentric adolescent beauty standard has us all aspiring to look like slim 16-year-olds. A burgeoning wellness movement has us attempting dangerous, eating-disorder-adjacent trends like intermittent fasting, the keto diet, and juice cleanses. Our maladaptive relationship with eating isn’t personal: it’s endemic. It’s in our food. 

Social conditions have conspired to pathologize our approach to food and eating, provoking the very problems they then purport to solve. And the unifying factor that underlies each of these social phenomena is capitalism. 

The foundations of our economic system–free wage labor and accumulated capital– depend entirely upon the availability of a willing and able labor force. Additionally, industrialization and urbanization provoke demand for food commodities.  To that end, global capitalism has deployed various systems to tackle the problem of feeding an increasingly growing populace. Organized agriculture began to replace hunter-gathering, leading to population explosions around the world. The same systems that created our political systems created our food systems. 

The system of production, consumption, and sale of food on a global scale originates with the development of capitalism. It was under capitalism in Europe that a global food regime was devised. The global market came first–then came the rebranding of food as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a human right. 

Eventually, food became a strategic tool to drive economic growth, one that could be manipulated at will. Maize was introduced to Africa to supply low-wage labor in exploited African countries. Tea and sugar became major global exports, in part because of lower taxes and tariffs on those foods. Why? Because they lent laborers the strength and energy they needed to work ever harder. Modern agriculture was, in essence, a capitalist device, an intentional structure deployed to uphold a global economic system that needed to keep growing–or risk failure. Thus emerged the food regime, a system built entirely on the backs of third-world laborers and exploited land. 

This system—a system that prioritizes quantity at the expense of quality and sustainability—shaped the global food regime, for better or for worse. And in so doing, it deepened the divide between the haves and the have-nots. According to the United Nations, 821 million people worldwide are malnourished. While millions are starving, we produce enough food on a global scale to feed over 10 billion people–one and a half times the global population. The result is that the competitive character of capitalism has bled into our food distribution system. It’s survival of the fittest—the manufactured perception that there’s only so much food to go around, when in fact, there is plenty.

There is ample research to suggest that binge eating disorder and bulimia often occur in those who have known food insecurity–and those who fear it. When we fear not having enough, we take as much as we can get. When we face these pressures, we experience increasing stress–and stress is one of the drivers of disordered eating. It is under these conditions that people turn to what they can control–and food is the easiest way to do that. 

Capitalism runs on the accumulation of wealth, and if food is a commodity, a capitalist system will do anything to make that commodity more valuable. Throughout the 20th century, as globalization began to expand, food providers experimented with making foods more addictive by adding salt, sugar, and other additives. The result was as intended: people began to eat more and in greater quantities. The resulting weight gain was not an impediment to the industry but a boon: it provided new avenues for exploitation in the form of the diet industry, an industry worth $60 billion today. 

Capitalism and the Global Beauty Standard 

Capitalism isn’t just in our food but also in our minds. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system—it is a culture, and as a culture, it has indelibly shaped all areas of our lives. Just as capitalism fosters competition for economic value, so it also fosters competition in the realm of social value. It’s no coincidence that the same countries that devised capitalism are also those that push the Eurocentric beauty standard. Those in power set beauty standards, and those in power are fit, white, and have a vested interest in making the rest of us think we should look that way too. Beauty–or what passes for beauty–sells. 

As a result, an entire economy of wellness has emerged, predicated on the misguided belief that everyone can and should look like Gwyneth Paltrow. The wellness industry, itself a product of capitalism, profits from selling us the products that make us sick—and those that promise to make us well. It is a system that has no interest in ensuring our health and well-being, not when there is money to be made. Under capitalism, we are taught to hate our bodies–and provided an easy way to fix that.

This hyper-competitive, individualist system bolsters disordered eating–and then profits off of that. It has no incentive to address the problem of disordered eating because it sells. In-patient care can cost up to $40,000—mine did. Outpatient care for one year–the minimum amount of time that treatment is most effective–can cost upwards of $100,000.We are told to go to therapy, to go to rehab, to make meal plans, and to visit nutritionists. And yet none of these supposed solutions does anything to address the fundamental problem: that our food–and the culture surrounding our food–is making us sick. 

What we need are collective solutions. We need to demand and revise our most fundamental systems–from how we eat to how we perpetuate messages about food. We need a nationalized system of healthcare that does not depend upon our being sick to function. We need an end to the profit-driven manufacture of stress and insecurity, an end to the interminable workweek, an end to diet culture and wellness culture and every other culture that has sprung up to convince us of our fundamental inadequacy. Only when food is no longer a commodity can we use it as it was intended: to nourish our bodies and nurture our growth. 


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