Recommended(ish) Reading – Junk Food and Obesity

ChipsI’m recommending (with some reservations) “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” by David Freedman in The Atlantic. It’s recommended because I’m intrigued by the food innovation at its heart – today we’re able to make junk food that is healthy without tasting that way.  But I don’t like the author’s tone and I don’t think he sets up his argument very well. So, I’m offering my own summary below. If you feel confident in your ability to handle a certain mean spiritedness without getting too frustrated, then by all means, ignore what’s below and stick with Freedman’s original version.


“How Junk Food Can End Obesity” is concerned with a very specific (yet high priority) topic of obesity and public policy to curb obesity.

There is a “wholesome foods” movement that offers many benefits to foodies everywhere. However, reducing obesity is an indirect benefit at best. Morally superior food still has fat, calories, and cholesterol readings that can be off the chart. I’m from Vermont, the land of cream and butter, not to mention a burgeoning meat industry where some of the best cuts are the fattiest (okay, the Atlantic author didn’t note the Vermont thing, but we have really yummy food that deserves mention). Plus, the more mainstream the wholesome foods movement goes, the more we find food full of gratuitous calories and fat that fits parameters of vegan, gluten free, locally sourced, organic, etc.

One of the greatest obesity-related benefits of the current food consciousness is . . . well, food consciousness. If everyone paid close attention and devoted more time to managing their diet, we’d have smaller waistlines.

Food consciousness becomes problematic at a public policy level. Telling people to pay attention to what they eat, and be sure to include a lot of vegetables, isn’t a new message – and it hasn’t worked in the past, obesity rates only got higher, so it’s unclear why it would work now. Efforts to bring in healthy foods to outlets where they haven’t been available before (convenience stores for example), founder when people don’t choose those new foods – they want to keep eating what they enjoy. [Editorial Comment here: the article gives anecdotal evidence for this rejection, it’s an observation by the author].

If we see obesity as a crisis critical enough to require triage, the whole systems changes that some advocates call for are unwieldy when compared to making changes to the foods that people are *already* eating.

Here’s the flavor-related part (starting in Section III in the article). Food technology allows manufacturers to shave off fat and calories without noticeable changes in flavor or texture. Shaving off 50 calories here, 100 calories there, every day can make a difference. Doing this reduction across the board without consumers noticing a change means that you’ve made a dietary improvement while avoiding the hurdle of convincing people to go on a diet – particularly useful for folks who have a knee jerk reaction to healthy food as being unenjoyable.

Stealth changes in the American diet have affected our health for decades – for example increasing serving sizes in restaurants (Supersize me!) or more heavily sweetened foods (sweeteners, often high fructose corn syrup, are in practically all processed or prepared foods). It stands to reason those types of changes can push weight back down too.

So, now, with that framework – can we really re-engineer junk food to fight obesity? It’s the question that Freedman starts to answer (here’s the link again). I’d like to see more information on it.  I understand why many advocates lobby for an ‘ah ha’ moment when Americans rethink their relationship with food. Obesity is, after all, a symptom of larger problems – both in our personal health and in our national food system. But, if the first step towards a healthier lifestyle is so simple as to be unnoticeable, then surely that puts *everyone* in a better position to pay attention to all the other parts of the platform for change. It’s one less overwhelming thing to think about, it’s an early feeling of accomplishment, and the health improvements leave individuals with greater energy and capacity for doing more.

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