I’m chuckling over the news of the day. Variations on this headline, Cheaper Food May Be Fueling U.S. Obesity Epidemic, are all over. Societal body mass has increased because food is cheap to buy and easy to consume. In short, food in America has become ubiquitous.
The report that has everyone chasing their tails is from the RAND Corporation and published online CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. It received funding from the National Institutes of Health. The abstract reads as follows (emphasis added):
This review summarizes current understanding of economic factors during the obesity epidemic and dispels some widely held, but incorrect, beliefs. Rising obesity rates coincided with increases in leisure time (rather than increased work hours), increased fruit and vegetable availability (rather than a decline in healthier foods), and increased exercise uptake. As a share of disposable income, Americans now have the cheapest food available in history, which fueled the obesity epidemic. Weight gain was surprisingly similar across sociodemographic groups or geographic areas, rather than specific to some groups (at every point in time; however, there are clear disparities). It suggests that if one wants to understand the role of the environment in the obesity epidemic, one needs to understand changes over time affecting all groups, not differences between subgroups at a given time. Although economic and technological changes in the environment drove the obesity epidemic, the evidence for effective economic policies to prevent obesity remains limited. Taxes on foods with low nutritional value could nudge behavior toward healthier diets, as could subsidies/discounts for healthier foods. However, even a large price change for healthy foods could close only part of the gap between dietary guidelines and actual food consumption. Political support has been lacking for even moderate price interventions in the United States and this may continue until the role of environmental factors is accepted more widely. As opinion leaders, clinicians play an important role in shaping the understanding of the causes of obesity.
Basically, food is so cheap you’re not going to be able to stop people from eating large quantities of it, even if you manipulate prices. It is easier to obtain and consume calories today than any prior period in human history. There are more places to get it, it costs less to purchase, and it takes less labor once purchased to convert into a meal. Our diets are more varied, the cuisines we sample of wider range, the opportunities for eating more common and the food more safe to eat.
The food police who want to insert themselves repeatedly into your physical form, jealous that you might experience pleasure from your meals without their intervention and participation, are frantically trying to spin this as a proliferation of “bad” food (Icky processed food made by companies we don’t like!), but the report is pretty clear; all sectors of society, including those most likely to consume “healthy” foods, have increased body mass. “Not only has food been getting cheaper, but it is easier to acquire and easier to prepare,” said Roland Sturm, lead author of the report and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “It’s not just that we may be eating more high-calorie food, but we are eating more of all types of food.” The fundamental problem is food ubiquity, not food composition.
As social problems go, this is a good one to have. No, seriously, we should be happy to be facing a surplus of food. What matters is how we deal with it. We can pathologize it as an “Obesity Epidemic,” or we can approach it like adults and understand it as food security and its attendant management issues.We have too much of a good thing, which is not a bad position to be in.
What this report presents is the rather pedestrian news that the increase in body mass throughout the society is a result of long term trends, not something out of the blue that descended like a plague upon the nation. A CNN write up of the report notes:
“On average, Americans have been getting fatter since at least the 1950s, maybe even longer. While the data isn’t perfect, experts looking at health records for men between the ages of 40 and 49 see a steady increase in body mass index since 1900.”
A century ago, the nutritional problem was malnourishment and starvation. People routinely died for lack of food. Children, particularly in poor and/or rural areas, were crippled and stunted because they couldn’t get enough to eat or because their diets were deficient in vitamins and nutrients. Human history through roughly World War II (and continuing in various locations today) was one of food insecurity, shortages, and famines. The current state of food ubiquity is not some nefarious scheme by corporate overlords to make and keep populations “sick.” It is the outcome of the Green Revolution, of modern power, transport and communication infrastructure, of thousands of people in public and private sectors working (whether for the common good or for the all mighty dollar) to increase the stock of food available to a given population, of the rise of the urban and suburban middle class with money to spend, of the simple desire to never have a person leave the table wishing there was just a bit more. We eat because it is necessary to live, because it is a visceral pleasure to do so, and because providing food to others is intensely emotionally satisfying.
Yes, this embarrassment of riches is causing some problems, but let’s put it in perspective. We should be far more alarmed about the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria than about the ubiquity of food. Those bugs can kill us, thin or fat. We should be concerned that global climate change may reduce the quality of our food by changing the chemical composition of it. We should be concerned about global climate change, period. We should be concerned about the inconsistent provision of nutritious food to children and adolescents who are an increasing percentage of the poor in this country and who are perniciously affected by food insecurity. Improved school lunches are only effective when school is open and serving, and when the children are able to attend. The answer is not, as too many food puritans stand ready to propose, to restrict access to food by pricing it out of reach or by reducing its palatability to those unable to buy their way out of the food police’s moralism.
This doesn’t mean there are no negative consequences to food ubiquity, or even that these consequences are negligible when measured both at individual and societal levels. There are diseases and health issues that accompany increased body mass and may be more difficult to treat in the face of that increased mass. An abundant food environment means that obesity is more likely for all members of a society. When combined with an individual health concern, such as a genetic susceptibility to diabetes, there is a greater risk that individuals will experience a threat to their personal health. This is my life at the moment. Does it means I will develop diabetes? No. It means I am taking time to be more physically active, taking measures to reduce my current weight (knowing that this has health risks of its own), and paying close attention to the kinds of food I’m eating. I get my blood sugar tested, using medical science to monitor how I’m doing. I’m not in crisis – I’m just living my life.
To the degree that this rich food environment is problematic, there is time to address it rationally, responsibly and with respect for the population. There is no need to infantilize, bully or shame individuals. Indeed, the real solutions are going to occur at a societal level, with a combination of education and restructuring of the physical environment. We need to think more like this (from the CNN write-up):
“What this article reinforces is that we need to continue our research to find what combination of strategies will be most effective long term in helping all of us live healthier lives,” said Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.
Doyle suggests a better built environment where it is easy for people to engage in physical activity — meaning sidewalks and bike lanes and safer streets. Also helpful would be changing social norms so that families will expect healthier school meals and calorie counts are readily available on restaurant menus.
“No one thing is the solution to this problem we are having,” Doyle said.
Gee, making it easy to move around and be active, and to evaluate our food choices. You know, treating people like adults and improving the texture of our daily lives.
I’m fat now. I’ve been hungry in the past. Having too much is way better than not having enough.