Friday, August 7, 2009
In Defense of Food
A couple of weeks ago I read In Defense of Food by Micheal Pollan. The main theme of the book is that the typical American’s diet (the Western Diet), and more importantly the way Americans get their calories is inherently flawed. A combination of misguided government policies, strong lobbying from the food industry, and societal changes in how food is consumed have led to a system which produces mass quantities of low quality food at an incredibly inexpensive price. The problem is that this system is making Americans unhealthy by increasing rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The chief government policies which have brought about this problem are the huge subsidies paid to farmers to grow corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice. Of those, corn is king, receiving over 60% of the money provided by the government for farm subsidies in 2004. Farmers of fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, receive no subsidy from the government. This makes highly refined sugars (high fructose corn syrup), vegetable oils (corn, soybean), and a myriad of processed foods relatively cheap in comparison to other real foods.
Because these products are so cheap, food producing companies can take them, add a bit of artificial flavoring, and turn them into a wide array of different food products. As an added bonus, they can also add vitamins and minerals and tout their nutritional qualities. This approach is brilliant from a business point of view because the food products can be modified to include the vitamin/mineral/nutrient de jour with only a slight modification to the manufacturing process.
Finally, too many people just look at food as fuel rather than enjoying what it is: food. In our culture, a large number of people eat on the go rather than sit down and enjoy a meal. Additionally, “healthy” somehow means processed, low fat substitutes with lots of added vitamins and nutrients rather than real food. This fits conveniently into the “on the go” lifestyle most Americans are accustomed to.
The result of the combination of these market forces and cultural norms is a diet that is high in processed carbohydrates and refined oils but remarkably bland. As a result, most Americans end up eating too quickly, getting hungry again, and eating more. This is accompanied by huge swings in insulin production and an increased caloric intake. Making matters worse, a huge number of these calories are derived the aforementioned subsidized products, resulting in very little variety in most peoples’ diets.
Pollan goes on to give further evidence of why this diet is so bad but he didn’t have to convince me. Finally, he finishes by providing four basic guidelines to follow, all of which I found very sensible. Overall Pollan does a good job of summarizing the various forces involved with most Americans’ relationship with food and the effects of that relationship on their health.
Of course I picked a bad time to read this with the health care debate heating up. Then, last week, it was reported that health care costs in 2008 due to obesity (diabetes and heart disease) were a staggering $147 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a b. Congress is looking for ways to cut costs across the system but while diet and exercise are occasionally mentioned as partial solutions, they are often scoffed a “drop in the bucket.” That, or they are attacked because, “the government shouldn’t be able to tell me that I cant eat a cheeseburger!”
The problem, of course, is the government, through their aforementioned subsidies, is making that cheeseburger, fries, and coke, unreasonably cheap and not holding anyone accountable for eating it. Americans pay less for food per person than all other civilized nations yet we are more overweight. Part of the solution to health care (in addition to changing the award structure to reward effective doctors rather than those who do prescribe the most procedures) is to rethink the entire food chain and give people incentives to eat more real foods. The easiest way to do this would be to lower corn subsidies, making real food more competitive and unhealthy, processed foods more expensive, driving more people to choose real foods.
Sadly though, none of this will happen. First of all, very few senators and congressmen/congresswomen are willing to even push for personal health accountability because a large number of their constituents are fat. Even they were, the agricultural lobby would block such a notion in a heartbeat. If they can convince people that taxpayers should pay them to grow corn in order to fuel for our cars, there is no hope for a policy that will raise the price of the food that makes up the majority of most Americans’ diets.