In most discussion of the United States’ so-called obesity/health crisis, Americans emerge as weak-willed gluttons. Mainstream coverage, focused as it is on finger-wagging fatties and decrying diets laden with meat, sugar and processed goodies, misses a significant contributor to the unhealthful way most Americans eat–a food industrial complex dedicated to profit over health; one willing to obscure sound nutritional information that interferes with the monetary bottom line; and, worse, a government willing to abet the behavior.
Exhibit A — The recent foofarah about the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Meatless Mondays. It you missed it, here’s what went down: Last month, in a leaked internal newsletter, the USDA encouraged employees to participate in Meatless Mondays, a global effort to get people to reduce meat consumption.
Not so radical, right? Indeed, the increase in America’s meat consumption over recent decades is more shocking. According to a 2010 National Institutes of Health study that, incidentally, drew from some USDA data, meat consumption in the United States has nearly doubled in the last century. And Americans eat nearly twice the meat that the European Union and other developed countries consume; 58 percent of that is red meat.
Our heavy meat consumption (more than 270 pounds, per person, per year) may play a role in the increase of lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The American Diabetes Association says “a low-fat, vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors.” The American Heart Association associates a well-planned vegetarian diet with “lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.” The American Cancer Society’s nutritional guidelines call for “limiting processed meats and red meats.”
And there’s more. Earlier this summer, the United Nations urged that citizens of the world move toward vegan diets (no animal products) to help save the world from “hunger, fuel poverty and the worst effects of climate change”.
There is, I think, ample reason to consider veganism or vegetarianism for health and environmental reasons. (We won’t even get into the cruelty of the meat industry.) But Meatless Mondays doesn’t require such drastic sacrifice from participants–just a small reduction of meat intake. Reasonable, enough, yes? Not to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or many conservative politicians.
The cattlemen questioned the USDA’s commitment to beef producers. Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) called the USDA newsletter “heresy” and vowed to eat a big, old ribeye on Mondays instead of going meatless one day a week. Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-Iowa) tweeted: “Shame USDA. One has to wonder whether the Dept of Ag supports Iowa farmers since it is promoting “meatless Monday ” for USDA employees.” and “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday.”
And then the USDA backtracked under pressure, stating that they do not endorse Meatless Mondays and that the language in their newsletter was “unauthorized.”
Am I the only one concerned that the USDA, which backed down quickly in the face corporate and political pressure, is responsible for developing and promoting the country’s official guide to healthy eating — the food pyramid, or “nutrition plate” as it is now called?
Of course, industry intervention in government guidelines in nothing new. PBS’ “Frontline” has an interesting timeline of America’s changing relationship with food that includes this nugget from 1977:
The McGovern committee releases a document “Dietary Goals for the United States,” based on its mid-1970s hearings. The report, which recommends Americans increase carbohydrate consumption, but decrease fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt consumption, immediately causes a stir. Members of the food industry who would be directly affected — including cattle, egg, sugar and dairy producers — insist the report be revised. Scientists also protest that the recommendations are based on unproven science.
The committee responds by holding follow-up hearings and a second report is published later in the year. The revised version allows for increased salt and egg consumption and changes the advice from “reduce consumption of meat” to “choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.”
Is it any wonder that the American diet is out of control? Of course, no one can argue against personal responsibility for one’s health and diet. But individual education and willpower have a powerful foe in food industry manipulation. And, as the USDA has proven, we cannot rely on the government to advocate for us.
In this light, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial proposed cap on soda sizes seems a ballsy move on behalf of the people. In The New Yorker, James Surowiecki takes aim at the idea that over consumption is always a result American gluttony.
An executive at the American Beverage Association has dismissed the plan, saying that “150 years of research finds that people consume what they want.” Actually, the research shows that what people “want” has a lot to do with how choices are framed. In one well-known study, researchers put a bowl of M&M’s on the concierge desk of an apartment building, with a scoop attached and a sign below that said “Eat Your Fill.” On alternating days, the experimenters changed the size of the scoop—from a tablespoon to a quarter-cup scoop, which was four times as big. If people really ate just “what they want,” the amount they ate should have remained roughly the same. But scoop size turned out to matter a lot: people consumed much more when the scoop was big. This suggests that most of us don’t have a fixed idea of how much we want; instead, we look to outside cues—like the size of a package or cup—to instruct us. And since the nineteen-seventies the portion sizes offered by food companies and restaurants have grown significantly larger. In 1974, the biggest drink McDonald’s offered was twenty-one ounces. Today, that’s roughly the size of a “small” drink at Burger King. In effect, the scoops have got bigger, and consumption has risen accordingly.
A lot of ink is spilled over our collective crapulence. But corporations and our government must at least share the blame for the sad state of American health.
Billions of dollars are spent by the food industry each year (More than 4 billion in 2010) to manipulate and confuse consumers and exploit our weaknesses. And when the government, supposedly an instrument of the people, raises the mildest defense, the food industrial complex balks and citizens do too, decrying paternalism and intervention into our free will. How are we, starved of nutrition education and bombarded with manipulative marketing with no defense, to regain the health of our nation? Frugivore.