I was commenting at a blog the other day in favor of recent proposed legislation meant to nudge people into making better food choices. A reply to my reply asked me why I care what other people eat. I had to think this over a bit, but I have an answer, and prefer to give it its own space here on my own blog.
I care what other people eat because of compassion, the food environment my family faces, and concerns about costs and sustainability.
First the background. People are not making food choices in a vacuum. They are making those decisions in an environment which is slanted in such a way that they are encouraged to make unhealthy choices. Unhealthy food is subsidized by the government (through grain which is converted into meat, sugar, and fat) and is more profitable for food companies and retailers. Unhealthy quantities are pushed on us through ubiquitous placement and marketing by a food system that needs us to buy more, more, more, in order to remain competitive. The fact that we can only eat so much has been ignored and, actually, disproved; turns out we can eat more calories than we used to, and than we should.
What this means is that the status quo, expecting people to suddenly make better choices, regardless of whether they are children, whether they can afford it, whether it is available in their neighborhood, and whether they are relentlessly marketed unhealthy food, is unrealistic, as has been proven by decades of rising obesity. Thirty-four percent of the U.S. population is now obese, and an additional 34% are overweight. Yes, that’s 68% of adults over a healthy weight. Almost 17% of U.S. children ages 2-19 are obese. How is a two-year-old responsible for being obese? How will blaming the child’s parents help the child? Scroll down at this page from the CDC to see an amazing map showing the population relentlessly getting heavier, state by state, through the years. Blaming individuals hasn’t worked for the past 30 years, as obesity rates have risen, so what makes us think that it’s going to work in the future?
The U.S. Center for Disease Control introduces their entire obesity section not with an urge to “put down the fries, fatty,” but with this:
American society has become ‘obesogenic,’ characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity. Policy and environmental change initiatives that make healthy choices in nutrition and physical activity available, affordable, and easy will likely prove most effective in combating obesity.
But to return to the question, so what? I provide good food for my family and we are healthy. Why don’t I mind my own business? Why should I care what my proverbial neighbor eats?
I care because I have compassion. The same compassion that leads me to forgo eating animal products leads me to support legislation that tries to undo the unfair food environment in which we are immersed, an environment I have been lucky to resist not because I’m a superior human being with stronger character (I’m not) but probably because of a combination of good genes, good socioeconomic status, a mother who ate well during pregnancy and nursing and cared about nutrition and family suppers, and a leaflet someone handed me that led me to become vegan. I have compassion for the 68% of overweight adults and the real suffering that ensues; the risks for these diseases increases:
- Coronary heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Dyslipidemia (for example, high total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides)
- Liver and Gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea and respiratory problems
- Osteoarthritis (a degeneration of cartilage and its underlying bone within a joint)
- Gynecological problems (abnormal menses, infertility)
People who are overweight also suffer social stigma, employment bias, and low self-esteem, often along with a continual struggle with the unhealthy food that surrounds them. Overweight people often report that they never stop thinking about food – it controls their lives much like an addictive drug. For this I have compassion, and if I can speak up to encourage laws to prevent overweight and obesity, I will. I care.
I have compassion for the 925 million hungry of this world who would like to eat the grain wasted when it is fed to animals. Thirty-six million people died of malnutrition in 2006. Of course this is not all our fault, and this is a complex issue, but our country’s food policies, including subsidies which not only encourage our inefficient consumption but also unfair trade, absolutely play a strong role. I support domestic and international policies and encouragement of personal diets that take world malnutrition into account. I care.
I also have compassion for the animals suffering in this food system under government-skewed economics that encourage us to eat more of them because their feed is subsidized and their negative environmental and health impacts are not paid for at the checkout counter. If I can encourage legislation that brings the price of meat in line with the real costs, I will. If I can lift the veil of secrecy that hides the horrible things done to farm animals in our name, I will. I care.
My children eat well at home, and I pack lunches for them because the school lunches are not healthy. Did you know there is currently no limit to the amount of sugar that can be in a USDA-approved school lunch? And yet there are minimum calorie requirements, and insufficient funding. Hmm, how can schools put in enough calories with hardly any money? Sugar and fat are the cheapest calories (remember corn oil and high fructose corn syrup are subsidized by the government?), but the fat actually is restricted to 35% of calories (still a lot), so now you know why school lunches are loaded with fat and sugar. So I support legislation to improve school lunch standards for other kids, even though I side-step them myself. Here are some other ways I mentioned in an earlier blog about how the food environment impacts my kids despite my best efforts. We seldom eat out or watch TV, but my kids have personally encountered these:
Restaurant kids meals are always horrible, commercials on TV encourage kids to eat unhealthy food, teachers have kids visit web sites from candy companies in school, unhealthy snacks are often given to kids in preschool programs, lollypops are handed out on the way out of restaurants, fast food restaurants line the streets near schools, candy and sugary drinks are sold at gas stations and drug stores on the way home from school, schools have vending machines selling sports drinks and candy, weekly birthday or holiday parties include cupcakes with 4″ of icing, classes that behave well earn pizza or doughnut parties; chips, cookies, ice cream, and Little Debbie snack bars are sold daily in the lunchrooms, and on the first day of school my son’s teacher handed out taffy to kids who raised their hands. Every one of these situations makes parents’ job, to raise healthy kids, harder.
Someday soon my kids will be on their own. I hope that I, like my mother, can inoculate them against the toxic food environment they will face 24/7. But if I can speak out to help improve that environment to make healthy decisions easier, I will. I care.
I’m concerned about our nation’s diet’s effect on health care costs. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine makes the connection between this issue and our hair-tearing about the high costs of medical care:
“Even if the steak and cheese produced on American farms foster health problems, our government rallies behind agribusiness all the way to the emergency room. Sadly, every administration in recent decades has been caught up in a system that not only tolerates ill health, but encourages it.” – Barnard
Almost 10% of total U.S. medical expenditures are attributed to overweight and obesity. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that if obesity rates continue to rise from 2007’s 28% to 37% in 2020, health care spending will be 7% higher than it would be if obesity rates were to be reversed and drop to 20%. I support legislation that will lead to a reversal in obesity rates because I care about health care costs that our family pays through insurance premiums and taxes.
I’m very concerned about the environmental unsustainability of Americans’ current eating patterns, and trends in the developing world. We eat more meat per capita than any other country except Uruguay, so we can hardly ask others to cut back, but the planet cannot, cannot support even the current worldwide population eating like Americans do. I’m not talking about causing some pollution somewhere, maybe a few frogs die, I mean it’s physically impossible, but on the way to the impossible we will irreparably harm our planet. Our choice of diet is having an enormous and unsustainable impact on water usage and pollution, acid rain, soil erosion and pollution, air pollution, global warming, wildlife, oceans, antibiotics, and non-renewable energy. I don’t mean that our unavoidable need to eat causes these problems, I mean we make them magnitudes worse than they need to be because of the discretionary foods we choose to put in our mouths. The example we set, the culture we export, and our inability to ask others to do what we cannot is setting the stage for a disaster. The U.N. knows this and is urging the world to adopt a plant-based diet. One of the suggestions to reduce energy use from a University of Wisconsin researcher who calculated energy use of foods is to “decrease consumption of beef, sugar, and highly processed foods.” But right now our government is subsidizing exactly these foods through grain subsidies, making them cheaper and therefore increasing sales. I support ending those subsidies, or if that is politically impractical, counterbalancing them with taxes on unhealthy foods or subsidies on healthy foods. I care what people eat because our diet is ruining our planet.
All legislation is not equal. We can debate the merits of particular bills, their costs and effectiveness. But first we need to care.