How Republicans and Democrats Both Get “Obesity” Wrong

Are you ready? I’m going to get critical of Republicans.

And Democrats.

Because while everyone loves a partisan controversy, on this issue, folks on both sides of the aisle are cowed before food industry drones who have shareholder interests–not public interest–in mind.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (which, if anecdotal evidence is telling, is doing more to provoke anxiety in healthy-weight kids than to help kids who are actually at risk for diet-related disease) wrings hands about “the epidemic of childhood obesity” and wonders how we got here:

Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day.

Portion sizes have also exploded – they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. {…} in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.

The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

I need to point out a few things about the above excerpt from the Let’s Move! website:

1. It points out that consumers eat and drink more (including more sugar): consumers are the agents.

2. It mentions “sugar-sweetened beverages”–but not soda by name–that’s not an accident: the soda lobby would never allow that! And how would kids be getting those sugar-sweetened beverages? Couldn’t be because there’s SODA at SCHOOL, could it?

3. It says “portion sizes have exploded” as if they did it all on their own!

4. It notes that kids are “trending” toward 3 daily snacks but fails to point out WHY that is–namely, the fact that cheap, unhealthy snacks are EVERYwhere–like in school vending machines.

5. It talks about Americans eating “pounds” of sugar as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar–it doesn’t point out that there’s sugar (or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup) in spaghetti sauce, hamburger buns, ketchup, and pickles, not to mention all the more obvious places.

These may sound like the observations of a curmudgeonly former English teacher (which they are, because I am.) But in fact, these omissions and ‘weasel’ words are very telling. Purposeful vagueness all over the Let’s Move language. Why?

Because the food industry won’t let anyone in or near government point out what’s really going on.

More fundamental than these vaguely weasel-y communications is the whole framing of the discussion in terms of OBESITY as the problem.

As Michele Simon points out in her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back:

“If you think about it, obesity is only one symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: a profit-driven, corporate-controlled food supply. We should devote our energies to fixing the root problem (the food system) rather than squander our precious resources on symptoms like obesity.”

(Plus, as Simon points out, people can have diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes WITHOUT being obese, and NO ONE is helped by reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that go along with calling people “obese.”)

One of the things that could be done is to persuade food companies NOT to advertise unhealthy foods to kids.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children are naturally drawn to sweets and salty snacks, especially if cool characters are on the packages or promoting them on TV. As parents, all our “eat your veggies!” messages can get drowned out by the sheer attractiveness of junk.

Which is why I’m pretty annoyed at the GOP for blocking proposed guidelines that would’ve boiled down to this:

“By the year 2016, all food products most heavily marketed directly to children and adolescents ages 2-17 should meet two basic nutrition principles — they should contain foods that make a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans) and they should limit nutrients with a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.” (source)

Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, does it?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) seems to have been especially outspoken at the hearing, saying that these guidelines amounted to “government” supplanting the role of parents in monitoring children’s eating. The Congresswoman got lyrical, remembering her mother forcing her to eat liver once a week because it was good for her. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) “helpfully” noted: “the problem is in our world today, we just don’t take the time to do what we need to do.”

Or maybe the “problem” is that Rep. Mack gets much of her campaign finance from the TV industry as well as a good bit from farm/food processors. (Rep. Barton gets plenty from TV as well as the health industry.)

Not advertising junk food to kids is one small thing, but it could go a long way. And taking a stand shows respect for children–and their parents–who could do with a few less confusing advertisements in their lives.

[Processed food (and that’s almost everything that you didn’t cook yourself from scratch these days) has been as powerfully implicated as a destroyer of health as have cigarettes. The tobacco lobby worked just as hard to keep government from pointing the finger toward the real culprit there, too.]

Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone in (or near) government to say something pointed, like “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat in a package” or “drink soda once a week at most” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Better yet, let’s not listen to anything those folks have to say about food. They’re not really working for us, after all.

(And–did you know?–advertising AT ALL to children under 12 is illegal in most of Europe.)

{repost from the archives}

Why ‘Childhood Obesity’ Isn’t the Real Problem

Are you ready? I’m going to get critical of Republicans.

And Democrats.

Because while everyone loves a partisan controversy, on this issue, folks on both sides of the aisle are cowed before food industry drones who have shareholder interests–not public interest–in mind.

if I squint, the red person and ball looks like a diver that has been decapitated.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (which, if anecdotal evidence is telling, is doing more to provoke anxiety in healthy-weight kids than to help kids who are actually at risk for diet-related disease) wrings hands about “the epidemic of childhood obesity” and wonders how we got here:

Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day.

Portion sizes have also exploded – they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. {…} in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.

The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

I need to point out a few things about the above excerpt from the Let’s Move! website:

1. It points out that consumers eat and drink more (including more sugar): consumers are the agents.

2. It mentions “sugar-sweetened beverages”–but not soda by name–that’s not an accident: the soda lobby would never allow that! And how would kids be getting those sugar-sweetened beverages? Couldn’t be because there’s SODA at SCHOOL, could it?

3. It says “portion sizes have exploded” as if they did it all on their own!

4. It notes that kids are “trending” toward 3 daily snacks but fails to point out WHY that is–namely, the fact that cheap, unhealthy snacks are EVERYwhere–like in school vending machines.

5. It talks about Americans eating “pounds” of sugar as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar–it doesn’t point out that there’s sugar (or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup) in spaghetti sauce, hamburger buns, ketchup, and pickles, not to mention all the more obvious places.

These may sound like the observations of a curmudgeonly former English teacher (which they are, because I am.) But in fact, these omissions and ‘weasel’ words are very telling. Purposeful vagueness all over the Let’s Move language. Why?

Because the food industry won’t let anyone in or near government point out what’s really going on.

More fundamental than these vaguely weasel-y communications is the whole framing of the discussion in terms of OBESITY as the problem.

As Michele Simon points out in her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back:

“If you think about it, obesity is only one symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: a profit-driven, corporate-controlled food supply. We should devote our energies to fixing the root problem (the food system) rather than squander our precious resources on symptoms like obesity.”

(Plus, as Simon points out, people can have diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes WITHOUT being obese, and NO ONE is helped by reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that go along with calling people “obese.”)

One of the things that could be done is to persuade food companies NOT to advertise unhealthy foods to kids.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children are naturally drawn to sweets and salty snacks, especially if cool characters are on the packages or promoting them on TV. As parents, all our “eat your veggies!” messages can get drowned out by the sheer attractiveness of junk.

Which is why I’m pretty annoyed at the GOP for blocking proposed guidelines that would’ve boiled down to this:

“By the year 2016, all food products most heavily marketed directly to children and adolescents ages 2-17 should meet two basic nutrition principles — they should contain foods that make a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans) and they should limit nutrients with a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.” (source)

Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, does it?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) seems to have been especially outspoken at the hearing, saying that these guidelines amounted to “government” supplanting the role of parents in monitoring children’s eating. The Congresswoman got lyrical, remembering her mother forcing her to eat liver once a week because it was good for her. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) “helpfully” noted: “the problem is in our world today, we just don’t take the time to do what we need to do.”

Or maybe the “problem” is that Rep. Mack gets much of her campaign finance from the TV industry as well as a good bit from farm/food processors. (Rep. Barton gets plenty from TV as well as the health industry.)

Not advertising junk food to kids is one small thing, but it could go a long way. And taking a stand shows respect for children–and their parents–who could do with a few less confusing advertisements in their lives.

[Processed food (and that’s almost everything that you didn’t cook yourself from scratch these days) has been as powerfully implicated as a destroyer of health as have cigarettes. The tobacco lobby worked just as hard to keep government from pointing the finger toward the real culprit there, too.]

one of the few kid-ads I can cheer on!

Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone in (or near) government to say something pointed, like “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat in a package” or “drink soda once a week at most” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Better yet, let’s not listen to anything those folks have to say about food. They’re not really working for us, after all.

(And–did you know?–advertising AT ALL to children under 12 is illegal in most of Europe.)

Why You Can Eat Anything You Want

(as long as you make it yourself.)

for the record, I happen to love me some good North Fork Potato Chips--a locally produced brand. But I don't pretend they're healthy. They're just yummy, and a sometime treat.

Last week, Michael Pollan tweeted a paper on nutrition by Carlos Monteiro entitled “There is No Such Thing as a Healthy Ultra-Processed Product.” Food companies, the paper argues, promote their products as ‘healthy’ based on either of two things:

1. The absence of perceived “bad” ingredients (0g trans fats! NO High Fructose Corn Syrup!)

2. Reduced levels of (X “bad” component: fat, salt, sugar) as compared to comparable products

and

3. The addition of nutrients (“enriched” or “fortified”)

notice how they use 'earth' tones on the packaging to give you a greener, healthier feeling?

The paper is not very interesting reading, but overall, it makes a good point, which is this: stuff that comes out of the package “ready-to-eat” is probably not good for you. Yet it is precisely the ingredients that get processed into foods like that–cereals, granola bars, powdered flavored drinks, chips–that receive the HIGHEST government subsidies (think corn and soybeans, which get processed into literally thousands of different unpronounceable food ingredients.) And precisely those products are the ones backed by enormous advertising budgets to convince people that they are HEALTHY.

Let me put some flesh on those bones: once, I sat in one of the very nicest restaurants in Philadelphia and was served a delicious, handmade dessert–something involving chocolate and whipped cream, I don’t remember what, exactly–and one of the people at my table, instead of eating that, pulled out some kind of chocolate-flavored protein bar and ate that instead, explaining that he was on a diet and that this was ‘healthier’ because it had X number of grams of protein with only X amount of carbs. His perception was clearly that this bar (which, as very nearly all such bars are, was an ultra-processed, partially artificial THING made in some New Jersey industrial ‘park’) was “superior” to the cake.


Here’s another example: breakfast cereal. The companies that make ready-to-eat cereals have done a fabulous job of convincing people that there’s something special about cereal that makes it a right and proper (if not THE right and proper) thing to eat for breakfast. In recent years, we’ve seen them all scramble to put a bit of WHOLE GRAINS! in there and then shout about it on the package. But you know what? Most of the time, a few slices of whole grain bread with butter and jam (or some cheese) is a far superior breakfast, nutritionally speaking. Most cereals qualify as “ultra-processed” foods.

don't be fooled by the health claims! even the healthy looking ones are little better than vitamin-enhanced cookies...

Maybe these things don’t seem like such a big deal. But they kind of are a big deal. In developing countries, ultra-processed products (Monteiro uses Tang as an example) are viewed as modern and ‘healthier’ than the traditional diets. As such, even though products like these are comparably expensive, people will spring for them–with disastrous long-term effects on public and environmental health. In our own country, the lobbying pull of food producers prevents the likes of Michelle Obama from saying clearly “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat from a package” and allows pledges by Wal-Mart to reduce X number of “bad” ingredients as part of Let’s Move.


Monteiro isn’t saying never eat anything that comes from a package, and neither am I. But I think what we’re both saying is this: REAL food–and thus REAL wellness–doesn’t come from a package loaded with health claims and advertisements of “fortification,” or, indeed, of “reduced” whatever.

In a nutshell?

EAT THE CHOCOLATE CAKE! (not a flavored ‘energy’ bar)

EAT THE WHIPPED CREAM! (not the fat-free whipped ‘topping.’)

Weekend Eating Reading: Marion Nestle

…the Saturday post!

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating.’

This week, I’d like to introduce two books by Marion Nestle, who is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. You may recognize her from the film Supersize Me or Truck Farm.

{That's Marion "Ness-ull" not "Ness-lee"}

Although Dr. Nestle is a legit scientist and scholar, her writing is clear and readable, even entertaining. The first book of hers I read was Food Politics, a book that outlines the ways in which the food industry (aka ‘Big Food’) influences government policies–by employing lobbyists who fight hard against any government message that clearly targets any of Big Food’s offerings–and shapes nutrition research (by funding “research” studies that are thinly veiled advertising campaigns). In short, Nestle shows us how Big Food wields its re$ource$ to keep the public as confused as possible as to what constitutes a healthy diet.

(Meanwhile, basic dietary advice never changes and is adequately summed up thus: “eat less; move more; eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and avoid too much junk food.”)

My reaction on first reading Food Politics 5 years ago:

{Re-enactment based on factual events. Grandma's portrait looks approvingly on.}

Nestle’s more recent book, What to Eat, was called “indispensable” by none other than Michael Pollan, and it’s close to that. It’s basically an aisle-by-aisle guidebook to the typical American grocery store–more practical and even more readable than Food Politics–and she patiently runs through the wealth of choices available and shows you how to make sense of competing nutrition claims and other industry mumbo-jumbo.

Along the way, she provides clear, sensible answers to questions like these:

Is yogurt healthy? Which bread should I buy? Which baby formula is the best, and how do I decide between organic, conventional, and locally grown produce? (And many, many more.)

Always, always, her understanding of nutrition grows from a deep awareness of ecological, social, cultural, and ethical concerns–and as a result, her recommendations are wise, warm, witty–never dour or doctrinaire.


Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Marion Nestle, illustrating the futility of isolating one nutrient (for example, lycopene) and studying its effect on health:

“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science … is that it takes the nutrient out the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”

Get that? It’s the lifestyle–not this or that micronutrient–that brings wellness–lifestyles, I’d venture, that include eating with others and with joy.

And I think Dr. Nestle would agree. The last words of What to Eat?

“Watch out for the Big Bad Food?”

No.

“Go and eat healthfully!”

No–

“Enjoy your dinner.”

{Marion Nestle blogs at http://www.foodpolitics.com and tweets @marionnestle}

Breastfeeding and Justice

Last week, the popular Christian blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans drew her readers’ attention to mothers living in poverty in places like Bolivia. These women, whom Evans met in person, daily face crucial decisions–educate this child or that one? can we afford books or can we afford food? Evans contrasted these decisions with North American “mommy wars”–debates like breast or bottle (feeding), cloth or disposable (diapers), and Sears or Ezzo (gurus). Such choices, in light of the life and death decisions of mothers in the developing world, may seem unimportant. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter–they do, and maybe even on a global scale.

nursing Graeme just after his birth

Of course, our ability to make choices about parenting styles is a direct result of our relative economic security and privilege. But that doesn’t mean that this ability is trivial or unimportant in light of extreme suffering. In fact, I think that how we choose to live–including how we spend our money and our time (and eating’s a big part of that)–is organically connected to suffering and justice both here and elsewhere. It’s also connected to how we view ourselves in relationship to the Creator and the rest of creation.

Graeme, 1 week old, in cloth diapers. (& missing a sock. It's so hard to keep socks on babies.)

I am fully aware that there are many women for whom formula feeding is the right choice. I have had a number of friends who were (for various reasons) unable to breastfeed their children, either wholly or in part. These women bottle-fed, or supplemented with bottles, and they deserved exactly NONE of the criticism and judgment that all of them faced from breastfeeding advocates who made them to feel that they were inferior mothers for using formula.

Nonetheless–

1. everyone (even the formula companies) know that ‘breast is best.’

This isn’t debated! It’s even on the formula labels! The composition of  breastmilk is incredibly complex; it contains all kinds of things that science can’t even UNDERSTAND, let alone replicate. It is a wonder of God’s creation.

ALSO? It’s kind to creation. There’s no transporting, no trash, no waste. It’s the original ‘local food’ choice. (Not to mention the choice of those too cheap  thrifty to spend $ on formula if they don’t have to…)

2. NEVERTHELESS, formula companies worm their way into women’s minds…

Used to be, in the ‘progress’-loving Eisenhower years, that people thought of breastmilk as “backward and old-fashioned” and formula as “scientific and progressive.” While that’s faded away, the reach of the formula companies’ ads is still long. I have known many women who, thanks to the long reach of formula marketing, seriously doubted their bodies’ ability to produce enough milk for their babies. 

While this is a ‘lifestyle choice’ for most of us in the West, for women in developing nations, “breast or bottle” is a life-or-death choice. Years ago, Nestle (along with other companies) came under fire from breastfeeding advocates for giving free samples of formula to poor women. But formula must be mixed properly WITH CLEAN WATER, and this was not always available to Nestle’s target consumers. Plus, bottle feeding meant that the mothers’ milk would dry up. And THEN what happened, when the money to by formula dried up?

(I can’t seem to find an owner; I discovered it here–the mother in the picture is reported to have said, “use this picture if you think it will help [raise awareness].”)

Creating dependence on formula among at-risk populations without reliable sources of both clean water and cash is unethical, if not criminal.

designed by Rebecca Clark, http://www.babymilkaction.org

And so…

3. Supporting breastfeeding IS an ethical act.

It’s a responsible way to live as a member of the community of God’s creation. It’s a way of living lightly on the planet while choosing solidarity with the members of our global community who do not have the luxury of choice.

{And if you’re thinking, “hmn, does breastfeeding really even need advocates?”, read this recent piece-on how U.S. hospitals do a “bad job” of encouraging breastfeeding–and think again!}

Some of our ‘mommy choices’ in the West seem trivial in light of the extreme suffering and struggle of mothers elsewhere. But I don’t think they necessarily are trivial–they can have impacts going far beyond our own households. (Imagine if every American chose to borrow or buy used of consuming endless piles of NEW baby stuff?) We who have the luxury of ‘choice’ also have the responsibility to live in such a way so as not to consume so many more times our fair share of global resources.

So by all means, do give aid if you’re able–but consider changing the way YOU live, too. Your choices matter to more than just you.