Eating Ourselves Sick

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National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) director Frank Fear suggested the following as a possible issue for development into a deliberative framework.  We welcome your comments and additional information about this issue.

Food, Nutrition, and Health in Precarious Relationship

Many issues facing Americans today are imposed on them, such as the national macro-economic changes that are affecting families’ economic security. However, every day in this country Americans are doing something to themselves: consuming food—in type and amount—that has negative implications for their long-term health.

Part of the problem is the abundance of “cheap food” (the infamous “dollar menu”), which makes certain types of food (“fast food,” particularly) readily and easily available. But there is also the proclivity of the American taste bud: preferences for high-calorie food with high levels of salt, sugar, and fat, often coming in the form of “comfort foods,” loaded with simple (rather than complex) carbohydrates, such as potato chips and donuts. Rather than becoming options that people consume occasionally, these foods have become staples of the American diet, perhaps best characterized in the form of a lunch consisting of a burger, fries, and a Coke.

Another dimension of the problem is the amount of food consumed. Consider the “super size me” phenomenon that expands (often doubling) the amount of food available per serving. While bigger portions are often interpreted as “good value” (getting more for your money) the bigger portions available are often high-calorie, carbohydrate-loaded foods rich in salt, sugar, and fat. Less available—and often less attractive to eaters—are healthier options, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. Healthier options cost more (on average) and they are often less available to consumers—because of the existence of “food deserts” in many communities—and they are viewed by many consumers as less attractive (that is, less tasty) alternatives.

The bottom line is that Americans are “hooked” on eating foods that do not contribute to nutritional balance and a healthy lifestyle, and they are becoming sick over it. A significant portion of the American population is overweight; lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, are becoming increasingly prevalent; and many chronic diseases are linked significantly to food consumption patterns (e.g., heart disease). Coupled with the general inactivity of the American population—including youth—we are facing a crisis, a health crises, that we have inflicted on ourselves. And that crisis is literally costing the country—in skyrocketing health care costs associated with treating lifestyle-related illnesses.

But it’s not as though Americans are doing this to themselves alone, unassisted. The food and restaurant industry urges Americans to eat. Quickly accessed and less expensive food is marketed aggressively. “Fast food” fits the American lifestyle: eat quickly and get on your way. This applies not only to prepared-for-purchase food, but also for food prepared for consumption at home (pre-measured and ready for cooking). Metaphorically, the saucepan (at one time a primary cooking instrument) has been replaced by the microwave.

While one might argue that institutions are simply giving Americans what they want, there is also the question of how much this demand has been created by the food and restaurant industries. And to keep costs down, a good portion of the food available in groceries stores and restaurants is mass produced. The goal of producing a lot of food and as quickly as possible has created its own special brand of challenges, such as what happens in the animal industry with the use of growth-assisted hormones and housing animals (e.g., chickens) into limited-space areas for efficient production.

The overarching implication is clear: food insecurity, which used to be interpreted singularly in terms of hunger (that is, people having enough to eat), is now understood more broadly in terms of the relationship among food, nutrition, and health. When food insecurity is viewed more broadly, the conclusion is that many Americans are food insecure: that is, they are not eating (in type and amount) food that contributes sufficiently to nutrition and health.

While there is abundant evidence of counter movements in this country—the local food movement and increasing emphasis on sustainable and organic food production are several examples—these efforts (at least to date) have had limited reach. For example, it is often more expensive (sometimes significantly more expensive) to buy organic products. Besides, the decisions to buy (say) organic food is a lifestyle choice: made by people who have decided how they want to live their lives and have the ability to act on that choice. What about the low-income mother in an urban center who finds it an economic necessity to feed her family “dollar meals” at the local fast-food place—as a primary means to stay within her food budget?

All of this illustrates the complexity of the situation we face as a society. At issue is what to do about it? What actions might we take to bring about needed change—at the individual and household levels, at the institutional and community levels, and through policy changes at the state and Federal levels?

Thinking through and deliberating on the options is a necessary if Americans are to eat themselves back to health.


kyrani99's picture
I agree with you that advertising does stimulate digestion but it is not enough to cause overeating and obesity problems. Neither is the availability of food sufficient answer. These sorts of reasons are put over by the medical industry. There is the notion of food addiction and genes for fatness as also supposed switches in the brain that turn on and can't be turned off again. If you look in the medical literature you won't find any evidence for these claims. These are simple PR. Obesity is the result of overeating but why do people overeat? The answer lies in stress, but that stress is once again not what is put across as the stresses of everyday life in the 21st century. Pathological stress is not simple stress. It involves others in relationship with the individual. Certainly toxic relationships are at the heart of the matter and it is not only the humane that are thus stressed, toxic people stress each other. So how is eating involved? Stress involves much higher than normal metabolism and that involves the sympathetic nervous system. If we eat something, preferably something greasy we effectively lower the metabolism because the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates both digestion and rest. Eating is thus a form of self medication for the problem of stress. The side effect, ie being overweight, is far less harmful that that of most drugs, but still undesirable. So how to over come this problem? Knowing the source of the pathological stress and who else and how they are involved is the key. I have made these discoveries and if you set out and rediscover them for your self then you will be unbelievably empowered. You can loose weight even staring at wall pin-up of you favorite food, the stuff you could help but having before. What's more you will be able to enjoy all types of food, including fatty, starchy, sugary foods, without weight nor health concerns, guilt free and for the joy of eating the food you love.