I was perusing the LA Times this morning (hate the redesign, guys, not everyone uses a fucking iPad, y’know…) and came across an article in the Health & Fitness section called ‘Fed Up’ documentary lays blame for American obesity on food industry, and wondered just how bad the article and/or the documentary could be.
It’s not so much bad as not new and not treated like news, i.e., claims carefully evaluated. The article is uncritical and the Fed Up web site is A) performing like a dog and B) filled with the usual “Sugar is the Devil!” alarmism that I’ve been reading for the last several years. I won’t bother spending my money to see it in a theater and will just stream it on Netflix some other time. It beats the same tired drum of food abstinence and pleasure denial that the Food Puritans who haunt the aisles of Whole Foods have always pounded. (But, but, how can you not prefer a good organic kale smoothie to a Double Big Gulp Pepsi? Uh, maybe because the smoothie tastes like grass clippings and dirt and costs an hour’s pay after taxes, and the Pepsi is loaded with sugar and caffeine and will get me through the next work shift without emptying my wallet? But I digress.)
From the reportage, Fed Up wants a demon and has located a double dose in the food industry and its favorite ingredient, sugar. Mind you, I’m not terribly inclined to be sympathetic to that industry and their manic inclusion of sugar in just about everything on the shelf today, but demonization in any form gets my analytical hackles up. That kind of rhetorical move is a red flag for me that moralism and ideology are standing in the place of reasoned thinking and argument. It generally asserts rather than persuades.
The article has a typical Obesity Panic opening photo of a fat pair of feet standing on a scale that reads 200 pounds. It has a few “sharelines” at the top (some new feature in the LAT that allows you to do one-click sharing via Twitter, I think), one of which was intriguing – Conventional wisdom on obesity is challenged in new documentary ‘Fed Up'”. OK, what conventional wisdom is being challenged? With my interest piqued, I continued reading. The opening paragraphs continue the tease:
In the three decades since the first U.S. dietary guidelines were issued, Americans have become heavier and more saddled with diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The documentary “Fed Up” takes a look at what happened and offers a most poignant profile of what life is like for overweight children..
“Fed Up,” which opened this week, lays a large share of the blame at the door of the food industry. It looks at the idea that we don’t seem to get healthier despite a proliferation of products, surgeries, exercise programs and diets. The film is narrated by journalist Katie Couric, who also is an executive producer.
This captures the two key phenomena that need explaining: first, why has body mass been increasing across American society at a rate not measured before and, second, why are the treatments for reducing body mass failing across the board? Enough to keep me reading. There are several more paragraphs that continue to build up steam (the article is short and I encourage everyone reading this post to take the time to read it) and then starts talking about one of my strong interests, what I call food ubiquity, where access to food as such is easier than ever, “candy and other snacks are no longer available just in food stores; they’re in office supply stores, linen stores, “everywhere.””
And then we hit the Puritan ideology: “And the message of “Fed Up” is to start by cooking real food and avoiding processed items.” Hello? Real (vs. not-real) food and “processed” (vs. natural) items. There is a voice of scientific skepticism after this line,
“It’s a very myopic view of how obesity develops, and it offers no real solutions,” was the assessment of James O. Hill, a pediatrics and medicine professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.
Hill said that he objected to the lack of attention to physical activity in the film and that the assessment of caloric sweeteners as the major problem in Americans’ diets was mistaken.
A narrow view that tries to identify a single substance, caloric sweeteners, as the fundamental cause of all that ails us and that ignores the complexity of the environment which we inhabit and how that affects our physical forms. Sweet. The rest of the article outlines the documentary’s single-minded focus on sugar and has some objections from the sugar and food industry that are fairly predictable. It seems that food industry representatives declined to be set up as villains for the documentary, and the director is shocked, shocked, I tell you, that they didn’t want to play her reindeer games!
At the end, the filmmakers show their puritanical hands when they exhort people to give up all kinds of added sweeteners, even non-caloric, for 10 days. They don’t give a fuck about the food. They just want you to stop eating anything sweet, even if it cannot and does not add to your caloric intake. It’s a subtle form of fat shaming. If you really cared about your health, you’d stop wanting to put anything sweet into your mouth. If you don’t, well, I guess you just want to poison yourself with that “toxic” sugar. We tried to warn you.
The puritanical approach to anything is sanctimonious, reductionistic and totalizing, and food puritanism is no different. Let’s do a little unpacking.
If the body mass increase was solely due to too much sugar in the diet, as seems to be the claim on the web site, then research would have borne that out by now. Obesity research, its onset, its characteristics, its miserable intractability, has been done for a long time, since before the “obesity epidemic” dropped its porcine presence on our collective consciousness. Researchers have known that simple calorie in, calorie out, approaches may be effective at causing weight loss, but are confounded by the seeming determination of the previously fat body to return to its original form. With a little extra, just in case. This return to form was documented in research subjects long before the sugar surge in food manufacturing in the 80s and 90s.
The one bright point in the article, about food ubiquity, which is a observable change in our food environment in the last 30 years, was limited to the proliferation of candy and snacks – things that are sweetener-heavy and thus bolster their claim of sugar’s primary role in the increasing rate of obesity. What is lost here is the forest for the Candyland trees, that all forms of food are easier to obtain, pushed like crazy, easy to grab-n-go, just a phone call away.The sizes of packages have ballooned. The bags of produce get bigger, eggs can be purchased in full flats, soda in cases, meat is in “family packs”, and so forth. I can buy a bigger variety of more foods in greater quantities than ever before. I can get prepared food at more eateries cooking up cuisines from around the globe. In just my neighborhood, I can get at least 39 different cuisines, from raw vegan to Ethiopian to Mexican to Thai to sushi, all of which are available for take-out and many of which will deliver to my door.
It’s a psychological change as much as a physical one. When my brothers and I were in school sports, for example, the idea that we had to have snacks (of any kind, be it apple slices or candy bars) right there at practice or at the games was not present. You did your thing, then you jumped on the bus and went home and had a snack (usually a peanut butter sandwich or an apple) if it was more than an hour before dinner, or you just went hungry until dinner. We didn’t have juices or soda available at practice because, duh, the water fountain was right there. If you’re thirsty, take a sip. The big team players, like football and basketball, might have Gatorade on occasion, but usually it was too expensive for our neck of the woods and they drank water just like everyone else. Food was served at a home or a restaurant, and you drank water from the tap during the day.
The web site has a lot of links to other sites that (allegedly) promote “healthy” eating. Some go to places like a medical school and show a traditional food pyramid or plate and talk about eating a wide range of foods in reasonable amounts. Other links go to special interest sites that demonize particular food products (usually sugar) and set out draconian “rules” governing what does and doesn’t count as healthy. In these sites, it’s all or nothing. The concept of modest changes and preserving individual autonomy in regards to a person’s diet are simply not present as part of the conversation. Remove all sugars rather than be more selective in what you eat. All junk food must be removed from where someone might impulsively buy it. Tax things that have “bad” or “junk” ingredients. Get stores to stop stocking so much “processed” food. Make it painful and inconvenient to indulge in anything. This is what I term totalizing; the absence of choices to do things other than what the food puritans have decided is so. They want all the rest of society to join them in preventing an individual fall from grace – gaining weight. They are also ungiving to the grocers who put impulse items up front because that’s where their profit margins are, not with the kale and the overpriced organic ground beef.
There’s no acknowledgement that food, as such, is good. It’s all about nutrients and health and fueling the body for fitness. There is no whisper of the idea that pleasure is an integral part of consumption. At best, there is a romanticized fantasy of a nuclear family sitting down to a perfectly “healthy” home-cooked (which one of the parents is expected to be the domestic engineer to do all this work, I wonder…), all natural, all organic, meal that everyone loves and eats without complaint in a supportive and distraction free dining experience.
Another point to consider is that, if this argument is correct, if sugar is our modern-day Demon Rum, then what will replace it when we have put it to the stake and held our Auto-da-fé? After all, didn’t we end up in this sticky mess when fat was the demon de jour and sugar was used to replace it? Oh, OK, we can’t replace sugar with anything else, and everyone is just going to have to live like upper-middle income whites in north San Diego County, because, otherwise, Teh Fatz! Got it.
Another problem with this theory is that it can’t explain the counter factuals. What about obese people who never indulge in high-sugar sodas, who don’t eat much in the way of added sugars and who have diets that are, by every reputable medical standard I can find, “healthy?” Like, you know, me. I don’t drink soda. You can see from my weekly menus the kinds of things I do eat – vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed foods, yadda, yadda, yadda. I have eaten like this MY ENTIRE LIFE. I doubt my intake is any less wholesome than what the food puritans eat, except that I’ll allow myself a shake of salt on my steamed vegetables and a spoon of brown sugar in my morning steel-cut oats. If that is the measure of grace, I’ll stick with Satan. He’s the best part of Paradise Lost, after all.
Let me be really clear – I do think that the food industry turns out mountains of schlocky food that just isn’t very appetizing, and most of the least appetizing stuff is loaded with sugar, salt and fat. Also pretty much all of its great tasting stuff is loaded with sugar, salt and fat – which are elements of food that humans have come to recognize over millennia of evolution as good shit, man. I love my red bell peppers and I also love Costco’s almond poppy seed muffins. I adore braised collard greens, especially when braised in bacon grease and served with cornbread slathered with honey and butter. Cauliflower is the bomb any way you serve it, raw, covered with a full-fat sharp aged cheddar cheese sauce, or slow roasted in an agrodolce glaze.
So, in the end, sensationalism and scare-tactics standing in for reasoned thought and equitable public policy. I was so aggravated by the puritanism that I went and baked a cake that contains:
- A box of Duncan Hines cake mix
- A box of instant vanilla pudding
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 a cup of canola oil
- 1 cup of Bailey’s
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- 1/2 cup of butter
- 1 cup of pecans
It is, by this documentary’s standards, pure, unadulterated sin. It has processed foods with chemicals you don’t even know what they are. It has cholesterol and fat laden eggs. It uses that awful, toxic canola oil. It has alcohol with all of those empty calories! It has pure poison in the form of sugar. It has butter, which I guess is OK, except it isn’t made from organic milk. And then there are the nuts which are kinda-sorta OK, except why didn’t you use almonds which are better for you!
Yeah, sure, all of that, but it is scrumptious and it makes me and the Spousal Unit happy. And that’s kind of the point of life, y’know?