November 12, 2012 by lschoenfeld
I find it admirable that the food industry has a desire to make their food more healthy. I also believe that the industry has a lot to gain financially from the reformulation of food to fit a ‘healthier’ standard. Unfortunately, however, I think that the idea of a “healthy processed food” is a bit of an oxymoron; the majority of ready-to-eat convenience foods are so far from salvageable when it comes to nutrition, that the slight shifts that the food industry intends to make in the food supply won’t make any difference in our culture’s slide towards ubiquitous obesity.
The problem stems from the concept of what “healthy” is. In the McDonald’s and Walmart press releases, the companies have expressed their dedication to the reduction of calories, saturated fat, and sodium in their food in an effort to improve the the health of Americans who eat their products. This would be wonderful if any of these dietary factors had much to do with the obesity epidemic.
I don’t understand why Americans are obsessed with reducing calories. Total calorie intake has only risen about 200 calories per day in the United States since the 1970s, which is not enough to explain the level of the current obesity epidemic. Sure, overeating isn’t going to help when it comes to weight gain, but simplifying it to the idea that Americans just “eat too much” is absurd. There is so much more that contributes to obesity than simply a “calories-in-calories-out” equation that is lost in the belief that regardless of food quality, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.
Saturated fat has been demonized since the late 1970s, leading to a 2-3% reduction in percent intake since that time. The percent of overall calories from fat has steadily declined as well, dropping from around 36% to about 32% of calories per day. And yet saturated fat and overall fat intake are still blamed as the culprit in this obesity epidemic. Never mind that our overall intake has dropped, and that saturated fat has never been shown to directly influence obesity or heart disease. In fact, analysis on the Framingham Health Study demonstrated that people who ate the most saturated fat and cholesterol actually had a lower risk of heart disease, which is completely contradictory to the dogma that most of us have been exposed to: that saturated fats unequivocally lead to heart disease and weight gain. So perhaps as public health advocates, we shouldn’t be so concerned with reducing the amount of saturated fat that Americans eat. (Interestingly, the one type of fat that has increased in our diets is vegetable oil, which increased from 20 grams to 80 grams per person per day from 1909 – 1988.)
Sodium has also been considered a culprit in our modern disease epidemic, and yet most studies have never shown sodium intake to have a significant direct effect on blood pressure for most people. In fact, evidence has been mounting against universal salt restriction guidelines, as variation in dietary sodium intake over the usual range plays a minor role in blood pressure regulation in the general population and appears not to increase risk of CVD. A low-salt diet may cause serious health consequences and higher overall mortality, especially in the presence of certain chronic health conditions and lifestyle factors. Low salt diets contribute to an increase in hormones and lipids in the blood, and low sodium intake is associated with poor outcomes in Type 2 diabetes. This evidence suggests that salt reduction and restriction may not have the health benefits for Americans that it has been purported to for decades.
In short, I think it’s a great thing that food companies and grocery stores are dedicating themselves to improving the quality of American’s diets. Unfortunately, I don’t think changing the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, or sodium in processed food is going to do anything substantial to affect the growing rate of overweight and obesity in our country, nor will it affect the rates of chronic disease like CVD, diabetes, and hypertension. There are so many other factors that need to be addressed, ones that will likely cause the bottom line for most food companies to become prohibitive of making the positive changes required for true improvements in national health to occur.
Therefore, I think the major dietary changes need to come without major involvement by the big food industries that define the intake of most Americans. Food was never meant to be as convenient as it is today, and I don’t think large corporations are capable of creating lucrative products that I would consider to be healthy. We need to focus on supporting small businesses that create nourishing products, along with encouraging the cooking process in our country, which would eliminate the need for huge, international food companies feeding our population. They will never be able to design truly healthy products without drastically reducing their bottom line, and therefore they will not be able to solve the health crisis facing our country.