19 May, 2004

Obesity rant #2 of ...

Dan Savage linked to the author of a book called the Obesity Myth, which assures us that we have nothing to worry about and obesity is not a problem. When I read this, I can't help but think of a time when I went camping with my folks, and we were situated next to another camper who was roughly the size of an elephant seal, and probably had considerable difficulty in seeing his toes. I don't mean to poke fun at this man, or to cast blame on him, but I DO think that his condition is problematic.

As a biologist I find it inarguable that being overweight has dire consequences, relating mostly to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But I think obesity in this country is symptomatic of another, larger problem, which is the general decay of the American diet.

In most societies the population spends eons cultivating a diet that agrees with their temperament, environment, and lifestyle. It's natural that over the course of many hundreds of years a traditional diet will become refined, so that we should not be surprised when we find that people who eat traditional diets live longer, healthier lives. The Indian diet that I am accustomed to eating and was raised on is, I think, extremely healthy, has superbly balanced meals and augments the diet with spices of unknown pharmacological powers (e.g. turmeric!). I do not think this is an accident.

By contrast, the American diet has not evolved along such a course. Rather, it's evolution has been dictated mostly by the profit motive, especially as the agricultural sector has shrunk and food has become the province of large corporations. Home-cooked food is a rarity; purchased prepared meals are the norm. Prepared foods cannot possibly be as healthy as home-cooked food. For one, much of the nutritional value of food decays over time. Additionally, the ingredients in prepared foods are generally of lower quality and are designed to maximize shelf-life and prevent spoilage rather than for human health.

There's nothing more disgusting than a Hamburger Helper commercial, urging you to "save time", and relax after your hard day at work with a "convenient" meal, at the expense of your children, who will lap up the pre-packaged slop and grow increasingly unhealthy as a result.

Americans are notoriously ignorant when it comes to nutrition. In the whole of my educational career, I had exactly two weeks of formal education on the subject of nutrition. I can hardly remember what I learned, but suffice it to say that, whatever I was taught, it was certainly not enough. Perhaps this has changed since then, but I highly doubt it. Parents are also remarkably ignorant, especially since I continue to see so many buying their children soda, which is just about the worst thing you could possibly do for your child. Even just high-fructose corn syrup goes instantly into the blood, causes your blood sugar level to skyrocket, and causes your body to immediately begin converting that excess sugar into fat. Obesity in a bottle. And the list of ills of soda could occupy pages on its own. But judging by the volume of soda kids consume, parents seem to be unaware of its severe problems.

Meanwhile, many companies make lots of money. Kraft Macaroni is cheap and easy to manufacture, lasts forever and ships easily. The concommitant loss in public health is an externality that the industry does not have to bear. But America is obviously feeling the effects.

I rant in this space because I don't imagine anyone is interested in turning this around the way it SHOULD be turned around. The state of American agriculture, of American eating habits, and of American awareness of nutrition, need to be turned around. These are all battles that are difficult to fight, and selling diet tapes is so much more profitable...


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