Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Why We Are Fat, Maybe

I have this theory. Wherever you go in the world, anywhere on the street you can tell who's an American, because they're fat. Sorry, but you go anywhere and the people are slender and fit, except for the tourists from the USA.

That's exhibit one. Exhibit two is what's on their plates. It seems to me that other people eat better than we do. They eat fresh food, cooked lightly, not stuff with three or four layers of packaging but something that was alive yesterday, or this morning. This is true almost everywhere I've been, except here. And listen, it tastes better, too.

So my theory is that if you just ate fresh food -- nothing that comes wrapped in plastic, nothing in a can or a box or frozen -- you'd lose that weight and feel better. Probably make you healthier in other ways, too.

A couple of years ago we went to a small city in Portugal called Braga, which had a new MacDonalds. It was weird, this ugly MacDonalds right in front of an ancient, beautiful Catholic church. And nobody would go there. The professors I talked with said "Some of the young people like it, but it doesn't taste good to me." They were trying to be polite, equating me of course with everything American, but it was very clear they saw this junk-food palace as an intrusion and a danger.

The New York Times Magazine this week had an interesting story along those lines. The question is this: why is it that in our country poor people are fatter than rich ones? You know that's backwards. Poor people are supposed to have a hard time getting enough to eat -- starvation and poverty go together like rock and roll -- but in the US, weight is inversely correlated with income.

Yeah, yeah, I can think of fat rich people, too. But on average...
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice. You Are What You Grow

Well, it's interesting enough to dichotomize between the middle and the sides. The processed stuff and the fresh stuff.

So, that's what I'm saying, you ought to buy your groceries at the ends of the store, not in the middle. That's what I said, wasn't it?
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

Hoo boy, economists and their "rational" this and "rational" that. Don't get me started.

Hey, pass the Top Ramen.

But this is where it gets interesting. The fat-foods aren't more expensive because they're harder to produce:
This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

OK, look, this doesn't have anything to do with sex-ed in MoCo, but ... did you realize how this works?
That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

Mmm, Twinkies, that sounds good, doesn't it?

It's crazy to think that our government is causing people to be fat. We tend to think it's just bad choices, bad habits, we ought to just eat better. And of course, we all do have that option. But obviously, if it was just personal choices, people wouldn't be like they are. I mean that in several ways.

My dad used to go into a place and ask, "How much is a dime Coke?" Yeah, that's the sense of humor I inherited. These days, I don't think he could even lift a dime Coke, which costs two and a half dollars. I mean, who ever needed a liter of soda-pop?

Yes, I'm from the other end of the country. Soda-pop. Get over it. (My kids never forgive me for embarrassing them with things like that.)
A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.

Hey, when he said "a researcher from Mars," did you think he meant the candy-bar company? I did. I once talked with a commodity analyst from Mars, who described the trouble they go to to get the best prices for cocoa. They choose a currency to use, and they have to shop in secret, because if Mars buys chocolate, everybody in the world knows where the best deal is, and then they'll all buy there, and the price will go up... Figure if they save one tenth of one percent buying cocoa, they buy so much it turns into millions of dollars.

We don't usually think about our lives in terms of the government influencing what we buy. You need to eat, you go to the store, you buy what they sell. I was behind a guy in line yesterday at Safeway who had about a hundred little juice containers for his kids. And I was thinking, I bet there's no actual juice in that liquid at all. His poor kids are getting some kind of processed, Nutrasweet-flavored fluid, and that's what their little bones and brains are going to be made out of. How can that be good?

If there was real juice on the shelf, would he have bought it? Probably not, because it would've cost five times as much. But if it was the same price, he would, I'll bet.

There's a bunch more to this article, you might want to follow the link.


Blogger MOTHER OF MANY said...

I agree with your theory about the way people eat.I live in Cardiff which is a very cosmopolitan city and I have noticed that those of other nationalities buy their food locally and daily and it tends to be fresh vegetables and pulses and not in masses of plastic packaging.Whilst we seem to have many campaigns to fight obesity the girth of the population seems to be growing.
Here vegetables can be quite expensive and I can understand why low income families may buy stodge to fill up their children.However, I am a vegetarian and I personally find it cheaper feeding my family with just vegetables but then I am able to cook meals from scratch.Lots of young people have no idea how to cook and so they buy convenience food which is more expensive.However I think young people from other nationalities are more likely to learn to cook within the home.I think cooking lessons for everyone would help the situation.I am grateful that my mother taught me to cook.

May 01, 2007 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A suprisingly good post, Jim. The government's intervention in the economy appears to be detrimental to the health of the citizens. The traditional rationale for this is that the nation should be self-suffient in producing food for national security purpose. Still, we could wiser in what choose to encourage.

One contradiction:

You complain about the government making corn cheaper then complain about ethanol development making it too expensive.

May 02, 2007 2:02 PM  

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