The Casual Blog

Tag: obesity

Improved propaganda and healthier diets

For all the money and energy we spend on health care, you’d think we’d be more focussed on eating practices that improved our health. But changing eating habits is difficult. The forces of advertising and tradition powerfully reinforce our bad habits. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see the government’s replacement for the food pyramid this week.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s a significant improvement.

The pyramid was supposed to help us eat healthier, but it didn’t do that very well. The various versions of the pyramid were confusing where they weren’t downright misleading. In the past, the food industry has battled hard against changing the food pyramid, as well described in Food Politics by Marion Nestle. It would be interesting to know what happened to bring about the new symbol. Could it be Michelle Obama?

In any case, the new symbol emphasizes that half of your diet should be fruit and vegetables, and another significant portion should be whole grains. The other large chunk is dubbed protein.

The oddity, of course, is that there isn’t anything in the grocery store called protein. Many believe that eating meat is necessary to get adequate protein, although this is a myth. In fact, many plant foods (whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and nuts) are good sources of protein. It may be that the meat lobby figured that the meat-protein association is so firmly lodged in public consciousness that it will not be shaken loose any time soon, and so their markets won’t be threatened

The new graphic treats dairy products in a confusing way — a circle to one side of the main plate. This could be interpreted as a suggestion to drink lots of milk, but it could also mean that dairy is not entitled to the same status as the main dietary categories. This smacks of a political compromise with the dairy industry. There’s a growing body of evidence that cow’s milk is not good for humans, but the official new guidelines contain no hint of this. It’s good, though, that they recommend low-fat options.

Another subtle problem with the new graphic is that by depicting a plate completely covered with food groups, it reinforces our tendency to eat too much. Americans already have trouble not covering every square inch of their plates with food, and eating all of it. Our obesity epidemic proves the point. To be fair, the new web site (see link above) acknowledges the importance of reasonable serving sizes. Still, a better graphic would show that we should eat only as much as we really need to nourish ourselves, which for most of us means: eat less.

So long, Krispy Kreme, and hello health

It was bittersweet to learn last week that the Krispy Kreme store in downtown Raleigh was closing due to lack of business. When a business fails, individuals suffer hardships. As a downtown Raleigh resident, I’m particularly eager to see businesses here succeed.

And Krispy Kreme and I go way back. As a boy I was a patron of the first Krispy Kreme store, in Winston-Salem. There you could sit at the counter and eat hot glazed doughnuts while watching more fresh ones coming off the conveyer belt. It was one of the few places in town open 24 hours. After finishing my paper route at 5:30 a.m., I’d sometimes stop in there for a delicious sugary treat. It was also a favorite late night spot for teenage munchie runs. Good times.

But in recent years I’ve come to associate Krispy Kreme doughnuts and similar sweet products with less cheerful things, like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and death. The products are more like cigarettes than food. The nutritional content is minimal, and the high sugar and fat content are unhealthy. This is not exactly big news. In a sense, everyone knows that too much fat and sugar are bad for you. But it continues to be a difficult fact for people to face and do something about. That much is obvious from our obesity epidemic.

We’ve made slow but meaningful progress in the last 50 years addressing the deadly public health effects of smoking. We’ve substantially reduced smoking rates, and therefore smoking deaths. The basic facts about smoking and cancer are now common knowledge, as a result of government requirements for warnings on cigarette labeling and restrictions on cigarette advertising. We have not done anything like this with risky sweet food products that kill people.

If anything, we’ve headed in the opposite direction. Information about nutrition is obscured by industry and federal agencies. Our government transfers our tax dollars to agribusinesses as large subsidies for production of excess corn, which is processed into high fructose corn syrup and added to many common food items. Thus healthy unprocessed food seems unusual and, by comparison, expensive. Thousands of advertisements have convinced us that sweet, fatty food products produce good feelings of love and fun.

Sure, it’s possible to get sound nutrition information and it’s possible to eat in a healthy way, but our culture makes it quite challenging. People who make a point of trying to avoid unhealthy food are viewed with puzzlement and sometimes anger. It’s no fun being ridiculed as a food nut. It’s easier to go along with the crowd.

Lifetime Fitness gym recently published an article by Pilar Gerasimo titled “Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act,” That’s putting it too strongly, but it is certainly an act that defies settled conventions. The related web site does a good job of putting in bumper-sticker form some home truths about health and nutrition. The first home truth gets down to business: “The Way We are Live Is Crazy,” based on our rates of obesity and chronic illness. But, it says, we can change.

Maybe so. If Krispy Kreme is doing less business, it probably isn’t because their doughnuts don’t taste good. They taste too good! It’s possible that more people are facing the fact that we can’t go on eating like this.