The problem is when that fun stuff becomes the habit. And I think that's what's happened in our culture. Fast food has become the everyday meal.
Former (sigh) First Lady Michelle Obama
Let’s face it: for many people, some foods act like drugs, and food companies know this. In his piercing book "Sugar, Salt, Fat," investigative journalist Michael Moss explains how the Food Industry capitalizes on the “Bliss Point” — that allegedly magical place of just the perfect amount of sugar (especially when there’s added salt and fat) to make food completely irresistible. Foods are not just processed and manufactured — they’re “engineered…to maximize their allure.”
Remember the advertisement for potato chips where the tag line was “bet you can’t eat just one!” That was no joke. Think about it: you eat a single apple. Do you need a second apple? Are you ever desperate for a second apple? Compare that to a single cookie, a single handful of chips, a single scoop of ice cream. Is it the same? Of course not. If it were, you wouldn’t be reading this blog — you’d be eating the single apple and then moving on with your thin-without-trying life
Food stimulates the brain, and food corporations have exploited this. We’ve cited former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s book "The End of Overeating" in a previous post about cravings. Dr. Kessler also has this to say about the food industry:
Over the last three decades, modern global food companies have taken full advantage of this weakness of human biology [the effects of food on the brain], putting high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt foods within constant, immediate reach. The resulting shift in our social norms has made it acceptable to eat anything, anywhere, at any time. Mealtime has become an opportunity for a fun-packed evening of “eatertainment.” These strategies and shifting values have contributed toward making our nation’s weight gain all but inevitable; indeed, the only surprise may be that some people have managed to resist.
Janice — In doing research for this blog and for the book to follow, I have read more than a thousand scientific and medical journal articles. I’ve learned three major things:
- Scientists and doctors are very confused about food and nutrients.
- Vegetables and fruits are really, really good for us.
- Processed foods are not.
One of the reasons for so much confusion within the world of “nutrition science” has to do with how research is funded. As Dr. David Ludwig, a pediatric endocrinologist (and Janice's personal hero when it comes to speaking truth to power with regard to the food industry) writes:
In contrast to drug studies, no company stands to profit directly from basic nutrition research (and industry sponsorship would raise important concerns about conflicts of interest)…the public health approach to obesity remains focused on advice that has changed little in the last century: “choose an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.’ The food industry takes advantage of this confusion, by lobbying against sensible regulations – for example, to tax sugary beverages and limit advertising targeting children – with its political influence (1).
Plain old out-and-out deception is also at work. Starting in the 1960’s, we were told that fat was Public Enemy Number One. However, recently-uncovered documents from that time reveal that the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to review research that focused only on studies that minimized the role of sugar in heart disease and maximized the damaging role of fat (2). These “findings” were then published in a prestigious medical journal and led to decades of our eating “healthy” low-fat processed foods. Can you guess what made these foods palatable? That answer just happens to be added sugar, particularly in the form of high fructose corn syrup (3). The consequence of this demonization of fat and the resulting acceptance of the benign health effects of sugar was “ensuing decades of increased weight and its associated diseases” (1). We’ll have lots to say about sugar in a future post and how refined sugar really, truly, actually is a major enemy of good health.
In writing about the “Nutritional Industrial Complex” and the development of “edible foodlike substances,” journalist Michal Pollan writes in his book "In Defense of Food:"
All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains…the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture…These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything – except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Are we talking about a conspiracy here? Yes, sort of, if the conspiracy is for industry to move us away from eating food that promotes health. But Is the Food Industry actually trying to make us fat? The answer is no. The Food Industry is simply that — an industry, a business that must compete in our economy by employing strategies that are part of a free enterprise system. But there are serious, damaging consequences to this profit-driven system. The bottom line is that you’re an adult. You get to decide what to eat. If you decide to eat unhealthy processed food regularly or occasionally, that's up to you. It’s different with kids, however. They cannot make the same considered decisions that adults supposedly can. We'll have a future post about how the Food Industry uses television and internet commercials, mascots, video games, and promotional products to directly advertise to children.
Janice — And let’s not even get started talking about that particularly heinous invention, the jaw-droppingly unhealthy Lunchable, which — God forgive me — I used to offer to my kids. I know that someone is definitely going to hell for that product. The tagline for Lunchables is “add fun to their lunchtime.” Guess what, Food Industry executives? Childhood obesity is not fun. I accept that the Food Industry is a business that has responsibilities to its stockholders. But aren’t there other stakeholders, too? At the very least, is there no responsibility to our children?
Here's what we suggest: eat as much unprocessed, non-manufactured food as possible. Easier said than done, we realize. Convenient, delicious, unhealthy food is ubiquitous. In a fascinating book "The Evolution of Obesity," the authors remark, “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa; we now live in Candyland.” Let's keep evolving.
(1) Ludwig DS. Lifespan Weighed Down by Diet. JAMA.2016; 315(21):2269-70.
(2) Kearns CE et al. Sugar industry and coronary heart disease research: a historical analysis of internal industry documents. JAMA Int Med doi:10.1001/jamainternmed 2016:E1-E6.
(3) Gross LS. Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States; an ecologic assessment. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 79(5):774-9.