Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

6 thoughts on “Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

  1. Hi Laura!
    I like your blog, lots of stuff for me to learn from. I completely agree about your stance on cooking and how it is a skill. One that need to come back to the greater public, rather than focussing on healthy restaurant/fast food options.
    I just started blogging about this and was inspired by the Atlantics article that I had to write a response: http://takingbackcooking.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/a-response-to-the-atlantic-how-junk-food-can-end-obesity/
    As a fellow ‘pollanite’ I urge to keep “writing the good write”.

  2. I’m not sure if you got my first comment…My second question is that during the school year, we’ll have evening activities such as dance that will require us to eat out. Do you have any reasonably priced recs? I’m talking about places like Subway, Baja Fresh, Chipotle…not the worst fast food, but obviously not ideal. By the time we get home, it’s too late to eat. Thanks!

    • HI Eve, I’m always puzzled by this one myself! We are out and about sometimes too. The best (and most expensive option) locally is Le Pain Quotidian, which has many organic options. We also like Teaism if downtown in DC. For chains, I do think Baja Fresh and Chipotle are better options, though we generally eat vegetarian when out to avoid the hormones, et al, in industrial meat. Subway not so much on these grounds, and also because I don’t like the nitrates and other preservatives in cold cuts. Cosi also has a few options, though I think they could do much better. Then there’s also the salad bar places — near us, Sweetgreen, which has organic options, or Chop’t, even the Whole Foods salad and food bar can be good, though expensive! For real restaurants, Indian and Ethiopian offer nice veg meals, or other similar places. I particularly like Lebanese as well, for its lentils and spices. Road-side taquerias can also be a tasty options, though the beans are often canned.
      I would also think about the possibility of cooking ahead — one-pot dishes, soups, slow cookers, leftovers, roasts, etc. are all more amenable to reheating quickly and can be prepped on a weekend or even the morning of. Hope that helps — best, Laura

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