Thursday, April 30, 2009

They want me to be fat

...and you, too. "They" is the Food Industrial Complex (FIC) aided by media and the government, which has too often given in (at the country's expense) to folks who push processed sugar, packaged food, beef, dairy, etc. If the powers that be don't actually want to see Americans carrying extra adipose tissue, then at the very least (or worst) they care little about our health when balanced against certain food and commodity purveyors' ability to continue reaping monetary spoils. Corporations disseminate misleading, and often downright false, nutrition information with the aid of the government, sketchy studies and media; it remains easier and cheaper in some neighborhoods to buy a box of processed crap than a fresh stalk of brocolli; every day foods are packed with high fructose corn syrup and other sugars; all while our society demonizes fatness and places the blame for diabetes, high blood pressure and other ills on America's collective lack of willpower.

I've long been interested in the way corporations manipulate food consumption and how the government and media are complicit in that manipulation. I used to do public relations and marketing for the food industry. Believe me--I know whereof I speak. But this stuff has been on my mind a lot as I am working to eat better for my health--I'm in my late 30s and diabetes and high blood pressure run in my family--and to bring my food consumption in line with my beliefs about the environment, animal rights, factory farming, poverty and other issues.

For the past six weeks, I've been trying to limit consumption of poultry and fish and eliminate red meat, avoid processed sugar and grains, consume whole grains, eats mostly fruits and veggies, down lots of water. When summer comes, I'll be buying my produce from the local farmer's market and we're getting the ground ready for our own garden as well.

You know what I have realized? Eating this way is damned hard! Our sources of food--be they resturants or supermarkets--are set up to support an American consumption style that is not healthy and that was created, in part, by the FIC.

Shopping in Wal-Mart last weekend (I know!), I pushed my cart past the juices, finding my old favorites were all laden with sugars---every single one. My choices were limited to a handful of far-more-expensive organic offerings in the natural food ghetto--a handful of shelves hidden among the processed stuff that we Americans use to sustain ourselves. I couldn't find the vegetable stock I needed for a new mustard green soup recipe I wanted to try. There were rows and rows of chicken and beef stocks and boullions and seasonings, though. I had to run to the organic/vegetarian section (and pay more) at the local MARSH store for that. Ditto for the bulgur to make tabouli.

I'm finding that healthy, tasty and cheap "fast" food is difficult to find. As much as I hate it, McDonald's and Pizza Hut make my life a little easier at the end of a workday that begins and ends with a long commute to and from the city. Where is the healthy alternative to these places?

Why are the things that are the worse for us, the easiest to get?

I am privileged to have a car and to live within five minutes of more than six supermarkets. I am privileged to have the sort of job where I get weekends off to swing between Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's and Aldi searching for everything I want. I am damned privileged to have enough money to be able to spend a little extra for fresh produce or juice and catsup and salad dressing that doesn't include high fructose corn syrup. But many, many people aren't so privileged, especially now, in this economy. It's no wonder, as Bono sings, "the rich stay healthy and the sick stay poor." It should not be difficult or expensive to eat healthily and well in this rich and developed country.

And do most of us even know what eating well means? I think not. Oh, we've got diet-mentality and fat-phobia in spades, but real knowlege of nutrition? Not so much. And FIC doesn't mind contributing to the confusion. Dr. T. Colin Campbell writes:


As a member of several expert panels on diet and health in the past, I have found that nowhere is confusion more encouraged than during the creation of food and health policy. USDA, the primary sponsor of the Food Pyramid committee, has repeatedly demonstrated that it is more interested in the health of the agriculture industry than in the health of the taxpaying American public. The majority of the members of a recent 'Pyramid' committee, for example, had unrevealed conflicts of interest with the dairy industry that only became known through court order. Politics matters more than personal health.

The issue is further compounded by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the National Academy of Sciences whose task is to translate the latest scientific evidence into recommended nutrient intakes, findings then used by the Pyramid Committee. In the most recent FNB deliberation, nutrient recommendations that have stood for decades were substantially revised in a way that surely pleases their corporate sponsors. Dietary levels as high as 35% protein, 35-40% fat (depending on age), and 25% added sugars were said to be consistent with "minimizing the risk of chronic disease" (cancers, heart diseases, diabetes, obesity), a bonanza for junk food recipes.

When funding from M&M Mars candy company, a consortium of soft drink companies, a behemoth dairy industry conglomerate (the Dannon Institute), and a collection of pharmaceutical companies helps to make this report user-friendly (for them, that is) and when industry-conflicted academics organize and populate the panels, can we expect anything better? The consequences are ominous. When a contemporary UN panel, for example, was examining much of the same evidence and was opting for a lower cap of 10% added sugar, the sugar industry threatened them to persuade Congress to withhold funding of the UN study unless it adopted the US cap of 25%. Read more...

Look, I know Americans love excess in all things--from TV watching to shopping to religion. Modern lifestyles and laziness have made us perilously inactive. We definitely share some responsibility for our expanding waistlines and the sorry state of our health. But it is the truth that we are abetted and encouraged in our excess by corporations that benefit from our lack of knowlege and control. Ours is a strange society indeed. We make low-nutrition, calorie-dense, highly-processed foods cheap and more easily available than more healthful fare. It is marketed everywhere, even in our schools. The dairy and beef industries have seemingly an endless amount of money to push their commodities. Good nutrition information is difficult to find, even from the government. And every corporate-funded food study muddies the waters even more.

But we genuflect to thinness and equate it with health. We demonize fat and shame the heavy (Bad fatties! Bad!), but never connect the dots to a corporate-driven food consumption style that leads Americans by the hand to obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure and cancer, raking in millions of dollars in profit along the way. The FIC wrings our good health and natural weight levels from us and leaves us on the doorstep of the diet industry and the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry, so we can undo the damage with delivered meals and herbal blends, pills for our cholesterol and blood pressure, and, if all else fails, lap band surgery. Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching.

I just wonder, for all the fluttering about "the obesity epidemic" and costly chronic illnesses, whether fat and unhealthy is exactly what America's food industrial complex wants us to be.
UPDATE: Nope, instead of really looking at our corporate-driven food culture, we blame the obesity problem on fashion designers who make sure that plus-sized girls and women can find fashion that fits:
Do plus-sized lines promote fat? MeMe Roth, president of the organization National Action Against Obesity thinks so: "When you look at the human cost, what we're doing is we're on the Titanic and rather than forcing our children into the lifeboat, we're telling them to join the band. Worrying about fashion rather than worrying about the food is a horrible message that we're sending these kids." Read more...

Image: Fat Sitting Woman by Jed Dougherty

7 comments:

Julia said...

Right on, Tami. Very incisive and very smart.

I heard a report on NPR a while back about pre-schools/daycares in France. All of these schools (and I think they were public schools)employ chefs who cook gourmet food using locally-grown organic produce. The idea was to help children early to appreciate good food, but also to develop a taste for what is healthy. And, apparently, it's affordable. Which just goes to show you that it CAN be done, our country just doesn't WANT to do it. (In contrast, at his daycare, my son frequently has frozen burritos from who knows where and that ilk for lunch and then Cheeze-its for snack... ugh)

Holly said...

Very well written, and I had the same problem at Wal-mart...I think they stopped selling vegetable stock all together :(

Lyndsay said...

I went to Wal-mart the other day because of a gift certificate and bought more junk food than I had in ages. There are no fresh fruits and veggies there. The only reason I usually go into the aisles in grocery stores are for cereal, pasta and rice. It's crazy how much food is there that isn't good for us. I do find a lot of eating is habit. If one gets in the habit of only buying certain foods, one only has those foods in the house and will only eat those foods. I'd say it does get easier but like any habit, it can be hard to change.

Anonymous said...

If available, you should check out Trader Joe's. Their stuff is amazing and not that much more expensive.

L Jean said...

Don't be intimidated. You can make your own stock and freeze it. Microwave it while you saute the onions (or whatever) for your soup. Chicken bones and skin (even after cooking) make rich stock. Put potato peels and food stems in the bags. Shrimp shells and uncooked fish skin make great fish stock. Store "waste" food in a gallon freezer baggie, when it fills make stock, freeze it in pints.

Making stock: dump baggies of frozen stuff to big pot. Boil a long time, like an hour. Strain. Freeze. No stress (and no lettuce! that gets icky!)

Tami said...

Anon,

I LOVE Trader Joe's! There is one--not exactly close, but close enough--that I visit once every other week or so. But it bugs that I have to go there for things that are so simple. I think more people would eat healthily if a) they understood what that meant, and b) if the tools to do it were readily available.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Tami,

Don't leave out the drug companies that make the drugs to cure us (or at least keep us alive to keep consuming) of our obesity related illness'.

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