Food has been at the center of our lives since the dawn of mankind. It was food that drove us from our caves to explore the world. Food fueled trade, motivated curiosity, invention, travel and wars. Food was even responsible for the discovery of America. Columbus was in search of spices for a demanding European palate, not a new continent. Life revolves around the availability of food and the capricious weather cycles that govern it. A new industry emerged after World War II that used science and technology in an attempt to harness nature and smooth the bumps between feast and famine. Now, there are more than 10,000 new processed food products introduced to the market each year; reality television has turned cooking into entertainment; and we are eating ourselves silly. There have been unintended consequences.
For generations, family traditions and our best childhood memories have centered on food. But sadly in the 21st century, many of us have lost our connection to real food, its source and history. What happens when we subtract awareness and traditional meaning from food and take away the wonderful gift of having time to sit for daily meals with our friends and family? Besides a loss of culture and social bonding, we now see how this disconnection has triggered waves of unhealthy effects ripping through our society, the most prevalent of these being obesity and the chronic diseases that result from it.
Americans are suffering from the explosive effects of a spiraling obesity epidemic. Between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled and continue to climb briskly. Today, 2/3 of us are already overweight or at risk for obesity. That means as a nation, we need to lose 4.6 billion pounds. Researchers predict that 41% of us will be morbidly obese by 2015. The crisis has invaded even our children’s lives. 1/3 of them — that means 20 million American kids today are significantly overweight or already obese. I’m not talking baby fat and cute pudgy arms. Unless we get control, this will be the first generation of kids that don’t outlive their parents. Let me be clear: May even die before their parents. It is not just fat weighing us down. The financial and human costs of obesity are growing at an alarming rate & soon will outpace our ability to deal with them.
Weight related health issues cost the country $147 billion in medical bills in 2008–double the amount a decade ago. Obesity accounts for nearly 10% of all medical spending. Costs are expanding as fast as our waistlines.
Obesity is a stealth killer. These 20 million children, the ones with a problem today, have a much higher risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, kidney failure and cancer. These diseases are striking them now as early as 6 years old. Catastrophic diseases that kick in this early will keep millions of this generation out of the workplace and will kill them young. There are plenty of contributing factors that exacerbate this problem, but the core cause is what we eat and how we eat it.
In the mid nineties, I began to unravel the remarkable changes in our food system during the last twenty years: the industrialization of farming, an explosion of the snack food industry and ensuing sophistication of manipulated food, the multi-layer processing of the simplest food items, the design of a food distribution system that valued ease of shipping above all other factors. Today’s diet is not about fresh fruits and vegetables harvested in season, distributed locally and prepared from scratch at home. No, most daily American diets consist of high-calorie food made of sugar, fat and compelling flavors, but few nutrients, that is all dressed up as convenience or coolness personified, and marketed 24/7. In fact 1/3 of Americans eat fast food every single day.
The more I learned, the more I realized: This is a WAR. A complex war . . . .we are not facing one enemy. From the powerful marketing influences of junk food makers, to increased television watching and time spent at computers, to decreased exercise, increase in processed food consumption and the demise of the family meal. The enemy is all around us and we are complicit. But lets just focus on food for now.
Farm subsidies launched 35 years ago to feed a hungry nation triggered a profusion of cheap corn. Cheap corn syrup ignited an explosion of processed foods, and cheap corn feed created a new paradigm for livestock farming that flooded the market with inexpensive, low quality meats. Cut-rate resources drove high profit product development for a few powerful manufacturing businesses and fast food chains.
Food companies have figured out how to make our mouths water. These new foods are not easy to figure out—they look just like what we have always eaten, but are dramatically different with added chemicals controlling everything from appearance to taste and smell in recipes that create a neurochemical addiction. Over time, these hyperpalatable foods change our brain chemistry in ways that make us overeat.
To sell all this junk, powerful media campaigns extol a new culture of eating. Food marketing is bombarding us at every turn—there is no safe haven. Advertising triggers what psychologists call the brain’s “click-whirr” response. Food advertising that promotes snacking, fun, happiness, and excitement directly contributes to increased food intake. The tradition of sitting down to three formal meals each day has melted into all day grazing. It’s now socially acceptable to eat at anytime.
We are like lambs to the slaughter.
I hope to use my bully pulpit on “this small planet” to address the solutions to our current system of food injustice and encourage you to join me in the conversation. It’s time to take back our food!