Saturday, July 6, 2013

Battling the Food Industry

Today I read that the WHO was prepared to take on the food industry in order to do something about the growing health and obesity crisis that is happening all over the world. Good for them!

When I was a kid, smoking cigarettes was normal. Everyone did it. Or so it seemed. My grandparents smoked and others of my relatives and I hated visiting them because I hated the smell and how I couldn't breath when they lit up.

I thought smoking was a dirty, disgusting habit and I know I wasn't alone because growing up with smokers had given my parents a disgust of cigarettes and they didn't smoke either. But we were in the minority. Smoking was considered cool at best, harmless at worst. Pregnant women were advised to smoke to relax them.

Then the evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and a host of other health problems rolled in and slowly attitudes started changing and laws got passed and now smoking isn't considered cool at all. Of course the tobacco industry fought against it. They fought hard and even lied and cheated, but they were fighting against the inevitable. No one needed to smoke and smoking was so clearly bad for you even in small amounts. So they lost.

Now we are in another battle. A battle against unhealthy food, huge portions and poor attitudes towards food. Only this time, we aren't battling Big Tobacco. We're fighting Big Alcohol, Big Food and Big Soda. Combined. And they've learned from Big Tobacco. Plus, the fight isn't as clear.

It's one thing to say "Cigarettes are Bad". That's black and white. And the answer is obvious. Don't smoke.

How do you legislate portion sizes? We all know portion sizes are out of control. But what is a reasonable one?

Take Mayor Bloomberg's recent attempt to ban Large Sodas in NYC. I believe that a 64 oz. Big Gulp is ridiculous and that our ideas of what a normal portion is have gotten totally out of whack. But I cheered when his soda ban was struck down as bad law.

Not because I believe in the red herring of "personal responsibility." No. I cheered, because it was a stupid law. And totally unenforceable. It was grandstanding. I want laws that do something, not pretend to do something.

Under his law, I could go into a Subway and not be able to buy a soda over 16 oz. -- something I don't do anyway as I usually buy no drink or the smallest size -- but I could then walk next door and buy a Big Gulp. Plus I couldn't buy a 16.9 oz bottled drink -- the standard size of most bottled drinks -- because it was .9 oz too big. Which means every manufacturer in the US would have to rebottle their drinks into a second size to sell them into certain markets into NYC. This makes no sense. You knew they were going to fight that tooth and nail and they did.

Speaking of personal responsibility, it sounds great right? We should all take personality responsibility for our own choices! It's hard to argue with that. But of course, these lobbying groups use that idea and twist it around. We don't need the government to "interfere" with our "personal choice." We just need to take "personal responsibility" they tell us. And no one will ever be fat!

Right. So these same companies market horrible food to my kids on TV and the internet. They sponsor celebrities and use social media so that my kids think their sugary energy drinks that have actually killed people are cool. They do everything in their power to undermine my authority as a parent and make my job more difficult. Then they talk about personal choice and responsibility as if marketing as no impact on our choices and my kids eat junk because I am not willing to say no to my kids.

The problem with that is that my kids will tell you that I say no to them all the time. I don't buy a lot of junk so it's not in my house. I teach them what healthy eating is. I model healthy is. But I don't follow my kids around 24/7 and I don't believe that I'm doing them any favors by totally refusing to let them ever have this stuff as they do have to learn how to be around it and make responsible choices.

So I'm between a rock and a hard place and I don't appreciate the American Beverage Association invading my living room every night trying to convince me that they would totally tell me how much sugar and calories were in a Coke if the government didn't make them. When we all know they wouldn't.

Now I believe in personal responsibility. I do my best to make informed choices. I research things. I read up on health issues. I even go look up the original research that's being reported on in the mainstream article (which most people don't do and who can blame them). But even I have trouble sometimes making the completely rational choice.

Not only that, but the Food Industry doesn't just ring the bell of Personal Responsibility and make it seem like Government Regulation is root of all our problems, not to mention completely unnecessary in their fight to sell us more garbage. They also do their best to confuse the issue so we can't figure out what healthy eating even is.

Have you noticed how sometimes it seems like every other day there is a 'study' put out that seems to contradict the study that was put out the day before? Sometimes this is just because scientists need funding and publicity helps them get it so they publicize their bad studies that can't even make it into peer reviewed journals. Sometimes it's because the media is lazy about how they report on science and make claims that the study authors never made. But let's not be naive here. The Food Industry absolutely funds "research" designed to both confuse our understanding of what healthy food is and to make their unhealthy products seem healthy.

Even if they didn't, healthy food not a clear-cut situation like cigarettes are. Smoking cigarettes, even just a few a day, has been shown to cause (not just be correlated with, actually cause) lung cancer. They increase your risk dramatically to something like 80%. That means you have to be truly addicted to continue smoking cigarettes once you figure that out. And kind of a dumbass to start if you knew that when you started.

But what about drinking soda or alcohol or eating red meat or soy or cookies or a butter or a host of other things? Exactly how bad are they?

The answer is: it depends.

Take alcohol. Some people drink alcohol and become alcoholics. Alcohol can damage the liver. It impairs memory. It does bad things to your nervous system. But wait. Red wine also has cardiovascular benefits. Plus it relaxes you so it's good for stress. Healthier than some other drugs used to manage stress (but not others). And many people drink alcohol in moderation all the time without becoming addicts or being involved in DUIs.

Now let's look at butter. Butter is saturated fat and that causes heart disease, right? Oh wait. It turns out butter is actually healthier for you than margarine! Oops.

And don't get me started on soy. (It's good for you. It's bad for you. It's good for you. It's bad for you. It's... My head just exploded.)

We could go on and on, but most foods -- unlike cigarettes -- are fine in moderation. It's when you eat too much of them or don't get a variety or eat the fake processed versions all the time that you get into trouble.

All of which is hard to regulate. I mean how much partially hydrogenated vegetable oil can a cookie have before you ban it and who wants to write that law? Not me.

This doesn't mean we can do nothing though. But we have to cut through the nonsense messages that it's all on individuals and the government can (and should) do nothing and start getting them to help us.

If I were running the world, this is what I'd do:

-Ban all advertising of anything to kids but at a minimum ban the advertising of food to children, yes, even "healthy" food. (Studies show that advertising healthy food promotes gluttony for one thing, but also you know companies like McDonalds would make food that barely met the criteria so they could promote their 'healthy' alternatives).

-Tax the crap out of anything in the "junk" food realm and by that I mean anything we don't need to eat to live. So that would be cookies, cakes, pies, chips, soda, and candy for starters. It should not cost less to eat this stuff than to eat fresh staples like vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. We can start with the obvious stuff and go from there. Plus the beauty of a tax -- vs. a ban -- is that it doesn't really take away someone's choice. If you want it, you can eat it. Just like, if you want to drink, you can. It just will cost you.

-Start programs to educate people as to what reasonable portion sizes should be and start putting pressure on the food industry to honor them. (We can use the junk food tax money to fund it.)

-Encourage youth sports (not the dreaded PE class) by subsidizing them, starting programs to make them cool, building more facilities for them, and anything else we can think of to get our kids more active for life.

-Encourage community farming/gardening especially in poorer neighborhoods and repeal stupid laws that prevent people from keeping chickens and stuff in the suburbs, so people have better access to cheap, fresh food.

I'd also think about revisiting what we do and don't subsidize. A lot of my Libertarian-leaning friends are probably having a cow about some of my suggestions, but do they realize that part of why High Fructose Corn Syrup is in everything and why junk food costs less than fresh food is because of what the government subsidizes?

Not only that, but our entire food pyramid (which is now smashed flat onto a plate, but still) is almost entirely formed by these subsidies and by industry lobbies and very little by science. I'd change that too.

Bottom line: we can't have free choice and personal responsibility if our ideas about what is healthy and our choices as to what food is cheap are all being manipulated by Senator Hog Farmer from Iowa and PepsiCo and that's a problem that's beyond individuals working alone to solve.

And here are some ideas from Dr. Yoni Freedhoof on what the Food Industry could do and what Public Health can do.

Maybe the WHO will have better luck. I just hope they are serious about it.
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