“Healthy” Food Might Be Good For Wallets, But Not Waistlines

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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.

Reduced fat and reduced calorie… must be healthy, right?

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.)

“Heart attack on a plate?” Not really.

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.

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2 thoughts on ““Healthy” Food Might Be Good For Wallets, But Not Waistlines

  1. So what is your actual proposed solution to this problem? It seems like you have complained a lot about current practices and stated that industry will never product “healthy” food, but your proposed solution is just “support small business” and “encourage the cooking process.” It’s easy for you to sit back and critique decades of detailed and evolving claims put forth by others, but then you don’t turn around and put out your own detailed solutions, thus sheltering your theories from the same type of public criticism that you filled your blog post with.

    So let’s discuss your “solutions.” From a policy standpoint, what exactly does supporting small businesses mean? Is it lower taxes? Would that only apply if businesses were producing “healthy” food? Who decides what’s “healthy” (since you don’t think the government is capable of this)? What about the enormous grocery chains from which the majority of Americans get their produce (which is mostly mass-produced on giant farms)?

    And how would you encourage the cooking process, again, from a policy standpoint? Should we put home economics back into schools? In the busy culture/lifestyle of America, how would you sell “cooking?” To me it would require enforcing the health message that the extra time in the kitchen is worth the health benefits, but now we’re back around to who provides the health message and what that message is.

    I also question your brushing off 200 kcal/day and the idea that increased calorie consumption don’t influence obesity as “absurd.” We know that reducing intake by 500 kcal/day promotes weight loss at a safe, but meaningful rate for most people so I’m not sure why you think increasing intake by nearly half that amount won’t have the reciprocal gradual affect on weight status. If you do the math, 200 kcal/day is an extra 73,000 kcal over the course of a year. If we assume we were exactly meeting our needs in the 1970’s, and our needs have’t changed, then that’s an extra 21 pounds of weight per year. We agree that it’s not directly that 1 kcal in means 1 kcal of fat deposited, but there is a general trend that more calories=more weight. Couple that with the fact that our energy expenditures have, on average, decreased and it’s pretty easy to see how 200 kcal/day is actually a really big deal.

  2. lschoenfeld says:

    Hannah, to be honest, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the ability of the government to make major changes in people’s dietary habits without infringing on their constitutional rights. My point in the post was to suggest that there are two major issues in expecting the food industry to positively impact the obesity epidemic.

    One, I personally feel that the food industry enjoys their profit margin due to the unnatural palatability and marketability of their food products, and the 20th century invention of hyper-palatable food may be one of the major causes of the obesity epidemic. (Check out this blog for more info: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/)

    Two, the changes they intend to make to these products – reducing fat, salt, and calories – is unlikely to have a beneficial effect on the obesity rate in this country simply because the bulk of the science has never supported the role of those ingredients in causing obesity or chronic disease, and may even demonstrate negative effects of reducing certain components. If you can show me evidence that the promotion of a low-fat, low-salt diet has led to any beneficial changes in our country’s health statistics, I would love to see it.

    And though I do not have a solution to the obesity crisis that involves the food industry making top-down changes to their products, I will answer your questions as best I can.

    – “From a policy standpoint, what exactly does supporting small businesses mean?”

    I never suggested that there needs to be a government policy to affect the use of small business as a way to provide healthier food options to people around the country. I suppose I would suggest as a future RD that we recommend people look to convenience foods that aren’t made with obesogenic ingredients, and these foods are typically produced by small companies who have less of a profit margin to maintain. So this would be an educational effort rather than a governmental manipulation of economics. We can’t force people to buy better quality food, though I guess we could always stop subsidizing the crops that are used to make junk food.

    – “Who decides what’s “healthy” (since you don’t think the government is capable of this)?”

    The reason I don’t believe the government is capable of this is because they have so far done a poor job at developing nutrition recommendations based on the available scientific evidence. As I explained in my post, some of the major ‘culprits’ that the USDA has identified as unhealthy – saturated fat and sodium – have never been demonstrated to directly cause the diseases our government is trying to prevent. I have no problem with the government making nutrition recommendations, provided those involved objectively analyze the research on the various components of a healthy diet. I’ll believe the government is ‘capable’ of doing so when I see it happen.

    – “What about the enormous grocery chains from which the majority of Americans get their produce (which is mostly mass-produced on giant farms)?”

    I’m not sure what your point is here. I never argued that people shouldn’t eat produce. I don’t think a diet that consists largely of conventional produce is the major issue here. If people were to start buying more single ingredient food items (fruit, vegetables, meat, etc.) they would still be spending money at the grocery store, just on different items.

    – “And how would you encourage the cooking process, again, from a policy standpoint? Should we put home economics back into schools? In the busy culture/lifestyle of America, how would you sell “cooking?””

    I would say this is largely an educational issue. If the government is expected to override personal responsibility, then I would think that teaching cooking and education in school could be one of the few ways that this cultural apathy towards food preparation could be affected. I don’t think anyone would argue that preparing food in the home from ‘scratch’ isn’t a healthier habit than eating out, but the question is how do you convince the public that it’s worth the extra time? If they’re not motivated by their own health decline, then I’m not sure how the government is going to motivate them.

    – “I also question your brushing off 200 kcal/day and the idea that increased calorie consumption don’t influence obesity as “absurd.””

    Energy balance is a theory that is majorly oversimplified. You can check out this paper (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21772313), which argues that changes in diet composition are far more problematic than the simple excess of calories over time. Yes, overeating consistently will cause weight gain, but I think the major question here is WHY are Americans overeating? Some research that suggests that our reliance on hyperpalatable convenience food influence the reward system in our brain and drives us to eat more than our bodies need. (See here: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/) This researcher argues that we eat more calories than we did in 1970 because the food industry has designed foods that are hyper-palatable and encourage overconsumption and fat gain. So cutting calories out of highly palatable snack food will probably not affect overall calorie intake or make any difference on the obesity epidemic.

    You may enjoy this article by a former classmate, Adele Hite, explaining how calories-in-calories-out cannot account for the rate of our country’s weight gain: http://eathropology.com/2012/07/31/calories-in-calories-out-would-you-please-go-now/

    A great quote to further explain: “The modern lifestyle with its drastic changes in the way we eat and move puts pressure on the homoeostatic system responsible for the regulation of body weight, which has led to an increase in overweight and obesity. The power of food cues targeting susceptible emotions and cognitive brain functions, particularly of children and adolescents, is increasingly exploited by modern neuromarketing tools. Increased intake of energy-dense foods high in fat and sugar is not only adding more energy, but may also corrupt neural functions of brain systems involved in nutrient sensing as well as in hedonic, motivational and cognitive processing.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22800810)

    – “Couple that with the fact that our energy expenditures have, on average, decreased and it’s pretty easy to see how 200 kcal/day is actually a really big deal.”

    Most evidence actually suggests that our overall physical activity has actually increased thanks to more leisure time. You can read more about it here: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2008/05/exercise-didnt-keep-us-from-getting-fat.html

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