"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Obesity–Stop Blaming The Food Companies

Fat people are not fat because they cannot stay away from Doritos, but because Frito-Lay made them to it.  The food companies are just as bad as the tobacco industry, says former Kraft Foods executive Michael Mudd in a confessional mea culpa published in the New York Times.  He worked for the company for twenty years then retired, got religion, and is now going after his former employers as the Mephistopheles of obesity.  Not surprisingly, this born-again muckraking reformer calls for government regulation.  His hero is Michael Bloomberg who took on the big guys and the Big Gulp, and although Mr. Mayor’s idea was silly, ill-informed, and quickly found to be on untenable constitutional ground by the courts, it still resonates with those who are looking for a villain.

The villain is not the food industry whom Mr. Mudd ably represented for two decades, but the American consumer.  We want the junk Kraft sold.

Mudd gives his analysis of the obesity epidemic:

The rise in obesity is the result of multiple factors. Suburban life discourages walking. Escalators have replaced stairs. Schools have eliminated gym class. Kids play video games now, not kickball. Even the vast increase in two-income households over the past 40 years has had an impact, discouraging cooking and increasing reliance on packaged foods and chain restaurants.

Unfortunately the suburban housewife is not fat because she drives her SUV to the supermarket to buy fatty, salty glop; nor are her kids little tubbies because their half-hour recess has been cancelled in favor of remedial reading; nor do families bloat because of eating TV dinners instead of organic salsify.  For one thing, they are fat because they are poor.  Low-income families eat fatback and cornpone and pig out once a month at McDonalds because they do not have the resources to buy organic, wholesome food or eat at Jean-Pierre.  They are fat because they work two boring, deadening jobs and have no time for exercise at the Sports Club, and live far from vernal bike paths and mountain trails. Few food stores that carry fresh, nutritious foods want to go out to East Jesus, Alabama or to the Detroit ghettoes.  Even Walmart is being denied entry by the misplaced priorities of municipal governments who want to protect Korean food stores. The correlation between poverty and obesity is compelling.

Second, there is a well-studied association between food and psychological need. We don’t always eat because we are hungry, but because we are bored, depressed, in need of some cheap excitement.  All alone in your dingy apartment waiting for the phone to ring? No problem, reach for a Snickers.

Third, there are new data which show that thin people who live in the company of fat people tend to gain weight; or put more scientifically, they tend towards the norm.  As more and more Americans become overweight, the more will become overweight.

Fourth, some researchers have concluded that there is a hardwired demand for salt, sugars, and fat in all of us – not hard to understand given our caveman origins.  The Pima Indians are one of the fattest ethnic subgroups in America, and after factoring out all kinds of troublesome intervening variables, scientists have concluded that it must have to do with their genes.  While today’s Arizona Pima sits around all day long on the rez, his ancestors ran around on the plains and up and down the mesas hunting cougar. David Kessler, former head of the FDA has recently written The End of Overeating in which he describes our primal need for exactly those food ingredients which make us fat and hypertensive.

There has even been new research which shows that sitting rather than simple inactivity adds disproportionately to obesity:

Recent studies have shown that truly sedentary activities – i.e. sitting – have a peculiarly odd effect: 

Studies suggest that sitting results in rapid and dramatic changes in skeletal muscle. For example, in rat models, it has been shown that just 1 day of complete rest results in dramatic reductions in muscle triglyceride uptake, as well as reductions in HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). And in healthy human subjects, just 5 days of bed rest has been shown to result in increased plasma triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, as well as increased insulin resistance – all very bad things. And these weren’t small changes – triglyceride levels increased by 35%, and insulin resistance by 50%! (Plos Blogs, Obesity Panacea quoted in my blog http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/05/obesitywere-in-it-for-long-haul.html).

Not only that, but once one puts on weight, it is particularly hard to take it off:

It is notoriously difficult to lose weight once it is put on, largely because of the same genetic programming that enabled us to survive the Stone Age.  When we severely restrict our diet, our bodies rebel, and noting the decrease in calories, slow down the metabolism, thus consuming fewer calories, making weight loss even more difficult.  There has also been considerable research done on ‘set points’ although much of the theory is still being debated.

According to the set-point theory, there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people (quoted in my blog from MIT Medical)

CDC estimates that 35 percent of Americans are obese; and another 33 percent are overweight.  If the MIT Medical researchers are correct, then nearly 70 percent of Americans are going to remain fat and continue to gain weight.

If this weren’t enough, the US government subsidizes certain foods which contribute to obesity – such as the potatoes that McDonalds uses in their French fries, and the corn which is used as a sweetener in practically everything and as a cooking oil in kitchens everywhere.  The government does not subsidy salsify or rutabagas or spinach for that matter.

Now we come to the food industry, certainly no angel.  Of course it knows that the demand for sugar, salt, and fat are is buried somewhere deep inside the human organism.  They don’t have to read Kessler to know this and only have to see the bags of Doritos fly off the shelves.  In fact the little corn chip is the perfect food from the industry perspective.  It is sweet, cooked in fat, and has lots of salt on it.  Of course it pushes for continuing agricultural subsidies.  Of course it fights regulations on soft drink placement in schools.  It is in business to sell its product; and it does its job quite well.  Starting with a natural human craving, add creative packaging, and top it off with finely-attuned and seductive advertising, you will have a winner every time.

Since salt, fat, and sugar are not harmful per se as is tobacco; and since calories keep us alive and energetic and sodium provides an important electrolyte in our bodies, what are the grounds on which these essential ingredients should be regulated?  Isn’t it enough to state unequivocally on all processed foods that too much salt, fat, and sugar is no good for you?  The nutrition labels clearly state that if you eat a big bag of corn chips you will get 100 percent of all your fat, sodium, and sugar in one sitting? Yes, it is a bit difficult to figure all this out from the labels, but government is constantly trying to make them easier to decipher.

Under revised federal guidelines for school lunches, school districts are forced to change their menus. The result? More plate waste and food in the trash bin:

Not only is the new, healthy food just as unappetizing as the carrot sticks, the portions are smaller and the price is higher.  No wonder most of it goes into the trash.

Because the lunches must now include fruits and vegetables, those who clamor for more cheese-laden nachos may find string beans and a peach cup instead. Because of limits on fat and sodium, some of those who crave French fries get baked sweet-potato wedges. Because of calorie restrictions, meat and carbohydrate portions are smaller. Gone is 2-percent chocolate milk, replaced by skim.

“Before, there was no taste and no flavor,” said Malik Barrows, a senior at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, who likes fruit but said his classmates threw away their mandatory helpings on the cafeteria floor. “Now there’s no taste, no flavor and it’s healthy, which makes it taste even worse.”  http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/yucky-healthy-school-lunches.html

Some school districts tried to be creative but their gourmet lunches went into the trash even more than the more mundane variety:

Few school districts have been as extreme in their efforts as Los Angeles, which introduced a menu of quinoa salads, lentil cutlets, vegetable curry, and pad Thai last fall. When students began rejecting the lunches en masse, the district replaced some of the more exotic dishes with more child-friendly foods, like pizza with whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce.

But this year, even the whole-wheat pizza is gone, replaced by calzones, fajitas and other, smaller entrees with side dishes of fruits and vegetables. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/yucky-healthy-school-lunches.html

The point is, most adult consumers have a strong preference for junk food and have passed this preference down to their children.  Is this the food industry’s fault?  The fact that well-educated, affluent Americans are thin should tell you something.  It is possible to eat well, but it takes parental instruction, quality education, and money to do so. 

Mr. Mudd has a number of suggestions, all of them either won’t work or are problematic:

Levy federal and state excise taxes on sugared beverages and a few categories — snack foods, candy, sweet baked goods — that most undermine health. These taxes could help pay for education programs, subsidize the healthiest foods for low-income individuals and, maybe, discourage consumption.

While this proposal would likely run into fewer legal challenges than banning products outright, few people in this age of tax reduction would agree, particularly since sales taxes are regressive and take a disproportionate bite out of the poor.  Even if taxes were levied, most business would be able to do end runs similar to what they were anticipating had New York’s law been passed:

There are many practical reasons why the idea will not work.  First, fast-food restaurants will quickly adapt and since soft drinks cost almost nothing to produce but are in high demand, and McDonald’s is likely to offer “Two-for-one giant-sized drinks with every Happy Meal”.  The giant-sized drinks would be at the 16oz. maximum, the company would get the same allegiance as they did because of the ‘generous’ supersized drinks; and while consumers might not like to fuss with two containers in the car instead of one, the cheap deal will always win out.  People who buy their drinks from bodegas and other establishments can more easily carry two-for-one drinks. If theaters are limited on the size drinks they can sell, they can offer free refills, and throw in “free” candy bars with their large-soda purchases.  http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/06/big-brother-in-soda-can.html

Another whipping boy for PC obesity fighters is the media. They are Mephistopheles’ acolytes, and they, with their devilishly crafted, insidious, and manipulative advertising are even more morally guilty than the people who made the junk food:

Make mandatory the federal guidelines for marketing food to children that were proposed in 2011. These guidelines — written jointly by the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture — were only to be voluntary, and still lobbyists for the food industry persuaded Congress to block them.

Not only would mandatory restrictions on the advertising of legal foods containing essential nutrients never pass a constitutional free speech test, food marketers would find many ways around the restrictions. Food companies already have concluded sweet deals with school districts (books for advertising and placement) which financially hard-pressed administrators find hard to refuse.

Communicate more actively with people about their food choices. Require prominent disclosure of calories for every item on the menu in chain restaurants and vending machines. And create a front-of-the-package labeling system to encourage healthier food choices. Finally, the government should back community-based campaigns to inform and inspire better eating and more exercise.

Well, we know how successful past attempts in these areas have been. Full disclosure means very little.  Who pays attention to complicated nutrition labels anyway?  Given the powerful food lobby and the decades it took just to get nutrition labeling on packaging, any new, more intrusive information is not likely to be seen for decades if then.

Inspiring communication campaigns?  I worked in the behavior change field for 40 years and tried to get people to change their diets in countries all over the world.  Advertising, media, and education were the principal tools used in these projects.  Not surprisingly, given the multiplicity of psycho-social,cultural, and economic factors related to dietary change, these efforts went for naught.

In short, abandon all well-meaning but intrusive government regulations and all public and private education efforts.  Put all efforts towards increasing economic opportunity and reforming the public education system.  In other words, focus on molding fat, low-income, poorly-educated Americans into thin, well-educated, rich ones.

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