by Carol A Westbrook
Obesity has become an epidemic. Over 55% American adults are overweight. We have always regarded this as a self-imposed condition, blaming gluttony, lack of discipline, or a sedentary lifestyle. But as a number of recent books have pointed out, it is not how we eat, but what we eat that causes obesity. What we are eating is a normal American diet.
Why stop obesity? Isn't it okay to be fat, as long as you are fit? The answer is that the health consequences of this epidemic are not due to being fat, per se, but eating this diet. Our normal American diet is leading to increases in diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and possibly some cancers, in addition to obesity.
Yes, eating the American diet is making us fat and sick, and shortening our lives. It has become our most pressing public health problem. Let's consider what is wrong with the modern American diet, and what we can do to change it. And we'll see how energy independence may contribute to the solution.
What is wrong with the modern American diet
Years ago, you ate what you liked, stopped when you were satisfied, and didn't get fat. This is how our biology is put together in an ideal world. Nowadays you must continuously count calories, exercise, and diet merely to maintain your weight. The biologic mechanisms that prevented us from overeating have not changed. What has changed is the food.
We may think we are eating the same food that we always have, but in fact we are not. Our diet has changed more in the last generation than it has since we first climbed out of the trees and became omnivores! Our biology is optimized to subsist on a diet containing a wide variety of foods, but it doesn't deal well with our current diet because we are no longer eating food. Up to 70% of what we now eat is processed food or, as I prefer to call it, synthetic food.
Synthetic food is based on ingredients extracted from commodities such as corn, soybeans, seed oils, fruit juice, starch crops and sugars. Many of these ingredients are familiar–high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, nonfat dry milk solids–but others are known only to the processed food industry, such as instant starch derivatives, and amigum. These ingredients have long shelf lives, are used to extend natural food, or are assembled into food-like products that have supplanted the foods they represent. There is a huge mark up going from commodity to food-like product, which sustains a large, profitable industry.
The processed food industry started with the necessities of WWII. Post-war, canned and instant food gained in popularity as the 1950s “Betty Crocker housewives” fed them to their baby boomer families. The industry expanded in the 1970s, when food giants like Con-Agra appeared on the scene, buying up commodities and brand names, and dreaming up new, wonderful products to satisfy all of our cravings. Processed foods are designed to be inexpensive, convenient, and almost addictive in taste, and have come to take over an increasing share of our diet. People born since the 1980's are the first generation to be raised almost entirely on synthetic food, and they are the first obese generation.
Almost every food that you buy is loaded with synthetics, whether you purchase it in a convenience store, supermarket, or “organic” market. We are not just talking about cheese curls and canned soups, but everything, from salad dressing to peanut butter to juices to cookies (except produce and staples). Skeptical? Read some product labels and compare to homemade.
Our physiology is adapted to eat and digest natural food, with its mixture of unmodified fats, fiber, vegetable proteins, natural starches and sugars, vegetable proteins and animal proteins, and even indigestible matter such as cellulose. We are driven by hunger to eat, and then in a complex and elegant series of hormonal and neurologic feedback mechanisms, our body digests the food, stores the excess reserve, and makes us feel full when we have eaten the right amount.
These physiologic processes in our body do not respond appropriately to synthetic food. Synthetic foodstuffs do not satisfy, they are not processed correctly. Sit down to a big mac, fries, and a coke, and see when you get hungry again. You will crave the food, and eat it voraciously, but you will eat more than you need, and still crave it. It can override the satiety feedback mechanisms. Furthermore some of the components cannot be appropriately processed by our body; they trick the pancreas into insulin secretion, or are turned into fat to be stored in our livers and on our hips. The result: metabolic syndrome, hyperlipidemia, or diabetes. And of course–obesity.
Nutrition research has tried to identify the unhealthy additives, pointing fingers at salt, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and so on. But this research is misleading, because it implies that we can make processed foods healthier by eliminating some of the components. This is a false start; what we really have to eliminate is the synthetic food itself. It is not only what is added but also what is subtracted that makes these foods unhealthy.
How we can change our diet to make it healthy again
To halt this epidemic, we must stop eating synthetic foods. As Michael Pollen put it so succinctly in his book, In Defense of Food, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And we need to address this problem on a national level, not only as individuals. This will be a very difficult problem, since synthetic foods are too ubiquitous, too cheap, and just too convenient. They suit our lifestyles perfectly.
To illustrate the enormity of the problem, consider three different ways to make a Thanksgiving dinner:
(1) Mom's homemade Thanksgiving dinner. Fresh 20-lb turkey; gravy from drippings; Giblet stuffing made with cornbread; fresh cranberry relish; green salad with chopped vegetables and home-made vinaigrette; fresh green beans; fresh corn off the cob; mashed potatoes; roasted half acorn squash stuffed with apples and nuts; cornbread from scratch; apple pie from scratch, whipped fresh cream.
(2) Home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner using supermarket ingredients. Butterball turkey, 17 lb.; gravy (from jar); Stuffing prepared from a box; canned cranberry relish; green bean casserole (mushroom soup & onion rings); sweet potato & marshmallow casserole (from deli counter). creamed corn (canned); green salad (mixed greens in bag, bottled salad dressing); instant mashed potatoes; brown-n-serve rolls; store-bought pumpkin pie; Kool Whip.
(3) Boston Market, complete Thanksgiving dinner for 12, as posted for online ordering 2012: One Whole Turkey (11 lbs. avg.); one 32oz Spinach Artichoke Dip and Crackers; two 32oz Vegetable Stuffing; one 32oz Cranberry Relish; two 32oz Gravy; 12 Dinner Rolls; two Pies (1 Apple, 1 Pumpkin)
Mom's dinner contains nothing processed or synthetic. It takes hours of shopping and preparation. Eat as much as you like, and you will leave the table satisfied, looking forward to leftovers the next day.
The supermarket dinner seems home-cooked, though most everything is has additives or is processed. Its cost is similar to Mom's, but it requires less shopping time and is faster to prepare. You are likely to overeat at dinner, and later you'll snack on leftover turkey with potatoes and gravy.
The remarkable feast offered by Boston Market costs only $79, takes 5 minutes to order and 20 minutes to pick up. It is all processed. Everyone will overeat, and there will be no leftovers for sandwiches. You will be hungry soon for artichoke dip with the game.
Our challenge? We need to start cooking like Mom again. Not only will we have to give up Boston Market, we will have to give up supermarket convenience cooking. This will take a cultural shift. We will need to devote more time to shopping, preparing food and eating it together as a family. Like the French do. Perhaps that's not a bad thing. We could start with education. Teaching our children to cook simple things — how to put a salad together or bake a chicken. Teach people to shop and to read labels. And re-discover how delicious home-cooked food can be.
But the more difficult challenge will be to remove synthetic foods from our supermarkets, making them less available and less convenient. Should we put warning labels on food as we do on cigarettes? We would have to label the entire supermarket. Should we ban individual ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup or salt? They will be replaced by others. Should we ban synthetic food in its entirety, as we are (trying) to ban cigarettes? Let's be realistic. Legislation will not succeed. As long as there is a multi-million dollar industry whose profits come from buying commodities and turning them into foodstuffs, then Congress will do no more than pay lip service to the idea.
This change will have to be driven by market forces, not legislation. As long as synthetic foods are cheaper and more convenient than home cooking, they will be the American diet. But what if synthetic foods were to become much more expensive? Then there would be fewer in our shopping carts, replaced by real food. The American diet would change for the better. And here is where energy independence comes in.
What if the multi-million dollar food industry found there was more profit to be made turning agricultural commodities into biofuels than into foods? It would greatly alter the market forces that drive the industry. There is, in fact, a trend in this direction, as the price of fossil fuels continues to skyrocket and there is demand for alternative energy sources.
Consider corn, the main source of ethanol, an important gasoline additive. A fascinating article by Professor Robert Wisner in the Agricultural Marketing Renewable Energy Newsletter, in August 2009, showed how the cost of corn is increasing, and how closely it is tied to motor fuel prices. The figure below is from his article, which can be found at http://www.agmrc.org/renewable_energy/ .
This trend may continue, as agricultural products and arable land are diverted toward the components of fuel alcohol and biodiesel instead of food. Processed food will become expensive again. When a large bag of Doritos costs $12 instead of $2.50, it will become a rare treat, not a staple of our diet. We may find ourselves eating homemade food more often, and the obesity epidemic will begin to fade.
Oh, and we'll get more exercise as fuel costs go up, since we'll walk or ride our bicycles.
- Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting. Gina Kolata, 2007.
- In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Michael Pollan, 2009.
- Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease. Robert H. Lustig, MD. 2013.
- Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Melanie Warner, 2013.
- Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Michael Moss, 2013.
- “Corn, ethanol and crude oil prices relationships – implications for the biofuels industry,” Robert Wisner. Agricultural Marketing Renewable Energy Newsletter, August 2009.
Carol A Westbrook, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist at the Henry Cancer Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. She is a former cancer scientist, and author of the book, “Ask An Ocologist: Honest Answers to Your Cancer Questions.”