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Solving the obesity crisis—some preliminary thoughts

I am old enough to remember when most children and adults were not overweight or obese.  I was born a few months before the Japanese bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, propelling the US into World War II, so I’m not old enough to remember the rationing and deprivation during the war.  Growing up in the 1940s and 50s was very different than it is today.  Industrial foods such as margarine, Crisco, cake mixes and TV dinners were coming into common use, but most food was cooked at home from real starting ingredients.  I lived in a suburban area with many small farms nearby.  Farm stands were common in the summer and sold only what was grown on the farm.  Milk was not homogenized and was either delivered to the house or picked up at the local dairy.  We had eggs delivered to the house by a local farmer.  In the summer, when fruits and vegetables were plentiful and inexpensive, many people would preserve them by canning, pickling or jelly-making for use over the winter.  In the 1950s home freezing became more common.

At the same time most people were thin, especially growing children.  Part of the reason was the copious amounts of exercise we got regularly.  Those who lived on the many family farms were kept busy with chores, which involved intense manual labor.  The rest of us came home from school, changed our clothes and played outdoors until our mothers called us for dinner.  During the long summer evenings we also went out and played after dinner.  Most adults were also working at jobs that required a lot more activity than sitting behind a computer.  We ate 3 meals a day and probably a snack after school.  All were cooked at home, except for school lunch.  Fast food restaurants were non-existent and eating in restaurants was reserved for very special and infrequent occasions.  Snack foods like soda and potato chips were reserved for parties.

After WWII the massive industrial complex that had been created to manufacture war materials turned its talents to synthetic fertilizers and equally synthetic foods.  New convenience foods were introduced to the market at an ever-increasing rate and, because they saved time in the kitchen, were embraced enthusiastically by most people.  They certainly lacked something in taste, but people traded taste for convenience and soon they no longer noticed. The 1960s and 1970s came and went and ever more women entered the workplace, some out of genuine career interests and some out of necessity.  Fast food restaurants sprouted up all over the country and soon all over the world.  They were inexpensive (because of farm and fuel subsidies), convenient, and tasty (because of food additives and flavor enhancers).  At the same time grocery stores gave way to large supermarkets and the number of ‘edible food-like substances’ (to quote Michael Pollan) they offered mushroomed.  Most of these pseudo foods are composed of wheat, corn and soy, all subsidized by government programs, and flavored with artificial flavors, colors, a few nutrients, and the ubiquitous MSG, and many are fried multiple times in unhealthy vegetable oils (1).

Since about 1980 the rate of introduction of these new food-like products has skyrocketed.  At the same time real household incomes have stagnated, corporations have cut numbers of workers and shipped jobs overseas, causing many people to be un- or underemployed.  This results in the people who do have reasonable jobs having to work longer hours for less money, creating stress and lack of time.  They barely have time to take care of their families, much less cook nutritious meals.  Buying prepared foods or stopping at fast food restaurants becomes a way of life.  Often children are at home alone after school and are instructed to stay in the house because it’s not safe outside, so they watch TV or use the computer and snack, snack, snack on empty calorie food.  With modern kids so used to the taste of processed food, school lunch programs have given in to serving it because that’s what the kids will eat.  Schools receive money for sports teams and other non-academic programs for using food corporation logos and allowing vending machines in the schools, though this is slowly changing.  Also, the amount of homework children are assigned at present keeps them immobile and snacking after school instead of playing.

This extremely simplified history gives us a glimpse into some of the reasons for our current obesity epidemic.  There are many more, some of which I have examined in previous posts.  The solutions to the problem are complex.  Childhood overweight and obesity will be only minimally impacted by improving the school lunch program or getting vending machines out of schools, or bringing back PE classes.  How much exercise did any of us get in PE class?  While advertizing to children is an abomination, it can be counteracted by parents who explain its purpose.  I used to tell my kids that if they saw it advertized on TV it wasn’t worth buying.  Childhood obesity has come about on the coattails of adult obesity, and therein lies the road to a solution.  Children will not be drawn to processed and fast food if they are not fed it at home or taken regularly to fast food restaurants, nor will they eat processed snack foods if they are not in the house.  If what they are offered at home is real whole food that is what they will ultimately like, although they may rebel during the teen years.  That means we adults have to clean up our act in regards to food first so that our children will follow our example.

However, how can we do that when from all sides we are bombarded with junk food?  When we glorify it as delicious and special? When our government gives us the wrong advice by way of the dietary guidelines (see July 7, 2010 post)?  When we perceive healthy food as boring and tasteless?  And when we are too busy and stressed out to care?  Real food, as I have described previously, is delicious as well as nutritious if it is prepared simply and well, with the generous use of natural fats like butter, lard and coconut oil, a small amount of natural sugar, to bring out the intrinsic deliciousness of the food itself.  If we begin to demand this type of food and stop buying the processed frankenfood, food companies will wake up and smell the profits.  Small local farms using sustainable methods will undergo a resurgence, as is happening in many areas.  The marketplace is a powerful force. If enough people discover the pleasures and health benefits of eating real, whole, minimally processed foods such as fresh meats, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, fruits and properly prepared starchy foods the marketplace will soon provide them.

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