• There’s still no easy answer to obesity

    Any reader of the blog knows of my interest in obesity and health. My wife also runs a program to help children eat healthier and lose weight. So this is a topic that gets a fair amount of discussion in our house. In general, we tend to lean toward the “anything” in moderation philosophy. My kids eat extraordinarily healthy diets, with a wide variety of foods, the vast majority of which are good for you. So I don’t care if they get soda once in a while, or a huge slice of pie. They’re fit, active, and healthy. I consider that a job well done.

    But my wife becomes obsessed once in a while with the whole “organic” or “natural” thing. I tend to be more agnostic on all of that. I think a locally grown tomato is much more tasty than a store bought one, but I don’t think it’s any healthier. I’m not sure my wife agrees. She will buy many things at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s that seems just bizarre to me. Last week, she whipped out a bag of these things called “Inner Peas”. They were lightly fried pea pods that were crispy and salty. She offered them to the kids, who didn’t seem too interested. “They’re vegetables!” my wife proclaimed. I looked at the back of the bag, and was annoyed to see that they had 140 calories per serving (or close to that). I replied, “The kids don’t need the extra calories.”

    I could not have been more excited to read this in the Atlantic yesterday:

    After my excursion to Whole Foods, I drive a few minutes to a Trader Joe’s, also known for an emphasis on wholesome foods. Here at the register I’m confronted with a large display of a snack food called “Inner Peas,” consisting of peas that are breaded in cornmeal and rice flour, fried in sunflower oil, and then sprinkled with salt. By weight, the snack has six times as much fat as it does protein, along with loads of carbohydrates. I can’t recall ever seeing anything at any fast-food restaurant that represents as big an obesogenic crime against the vegetable kingdom. (A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s said the company does not consider itself a “ ‘wholesome food’ grocery retailer.” Living Intentions did not respond to a request for comment.)

    Vindicated! The whole piece is excellent. Here’s another gem pulled right from my playbook:

    The Pollanites seem confused about exactly what benefits their way of eating provides. All the railing about the fat, sugar, and salt engineered into industrial junk food might lead one to infer that wholesome food, having not been engineered, contains substantially less of them. But clearly you can take in obscene quantities of fat and problem carbs while eating wholesomely, and to judge by what’s sold at wholesome stores and restaurants, many people do. Indeed, the more converts and customers the wholesome-food movement’s purveyors seek, the stronger their incentive to emphasize foods that light up precisely the same pleasure centers as a 3 Musketeers bar. That just makes wholesome food stealthily obesogenic.

    And this, which should be shouted from the rooftops:

    Where the Pollanites get into real trouble—where their philosophy becomes so glib and wrongheaded that it is actually immoral—is in the claim that their style of food shopping and eating is the answer to the country’s weight problem. Helping me to indulge my taste for genuinely healthy wholesome foods are the facts that I’m relatively affluent and well educated, and that I’m surrounded by people who tend to take care with what they eat. Not only am I within a few minutes’ drive of three Whole Foods and two Trader Joe’s, I’m within walking distance of two other supermarkets and more than a dozen restaurants that offer bountiful healthy-eating options.

    I am, in short, not much like the average obese person in America, and neither are the Pollanites. That person is relatively poor, does not read The Times or cookbook manifestos, is surrounded by people who eat junk food and are themselves obese, and stands a good chance of living in a food desert—an area where produce tends to be hard to find, of poor quality, or expensive.

    The wholesome foodies don’t argue that obesity and class are unrelated, but they frequently argue that the obesity gap between the classes has been created by the processed-food industry, which, in the past few decades, has preyed mostly on the less affluent masses. Yet Lenard Lesser, a physician and an obesity researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, says that can’t be so, because the obesity gap predates the fast-food industry and the dietary dominance of processed food. “The difference in obesity rates in low- and high-income groups was evident as far back as we have data, at least back through the 1960s,” he told me. One reason, some researchers have argued, is that after having had to worry, over countless generations, about getting enough food, poorer segments of society had little cultural bias against overindulging in food, or putting on excess pounds, as industrialization raised incomes and made rich food cheaply available.

    The most obvious problem with the “let them eat kale” philosophy of affluent wholesome-food advocates involves the price and availability of wholesome food. Even if Whole Foods, Real Food Daily, or the Farmhouse weren’t three bus rides away for the working poor, and even if three ounces of Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, a Sea Cake appetizer, and the vegetarian quiche weren’t laden with fat and problem carbs, few among them would be likely to shell out $5.99, $9.95, or $16, respectively, for those pricey treats.

    Go read the whole thing. I sent it to my wife a few minutes ago. We’ll see how that goes.


    • I know at least 30% of my obesity comes from having grown up poor; while I’m no longer poor, scarcity issues crop up in odd ways.

      I’ve wondered lately if the rise in obesity might correlate with the rise in economic insecurity. In the last couple decades it’s becoming widely apparent that all jobs are temporary, whole industries come and go in less time than a career, no field is “safe”, retirement programs range from inadequate to nonexistent, etc. Are people being driven to eat more as a subconscious hedge against the ever-lurking threat of the Invisible Hand?

    • Trying to solve obesity by changing food is putting the cart before the horse. I paid almost no attention to food until I was told that my fasting glucose was at 100 and the best way to resolve that would be to lose 10 pounds — so I went to work on the problem of eating less and exercising more and a year later am 40 pounds lighter. The desire to control food intake and not be obese came first, the healthy food choices came afterward.

      As long as obesity is considered socially acceptable, there will be obese people. As a nation we decided to tackle the problem of cigarettes and successfully marginalized smokers and reduced the number of smokers.

      • Since when is obesity considered socially acceptable?

        Just because something is common does not mean that it is considered socially acceptable. It’s pretty obvious that our society considers thin to be better than fat.

    • Where are we seeing “the claim that their style of food shopping and eating is the answer to the country’s weight problem”? Straw man.

    • at the risk of being snarky, I need to say this: arguing about specific kinds of food is not a productive use of time for a parent. Maybe in 50 years – but for now, there is NO scientific consensus on this issue.

      If you’re worried about your kids being obese, kick the soccer ball with them for pete’s sake, This is a parental intervention that is known to work, and has multifaceted benefits that extend beyond physical health

      If you’re worried about obesity at a policy level, go kick the soccer ball with other peoples’ kids.

      In short, trust grandma. No need to search for ‘the latest opinions of experts’; the tried and true wisdom works far better in this situation

      • Energy expended exercising is a drop in the bucket compare to what can be chowed down in seconds. The biggest benefit to kicking a ball with your kids is demonstrating that it’s fun to do things besides eat. If you don’t want your kids to be fat, then don’t be fat yourself — and that means eat less.

    • Not sure about other parts of the country, but in Texas we are saturated with Walmarts and HEBs. Both are full of healthy foods.

      You don’t have to live in an affluent part of town to have access to kale, quinoa, spinach, almonds, beets, apples, etc., etc. at a reasonable price; at least not in Texas.


      “One reason, some researchers have argued, is that after having had to worry, over countless generations, about getting enough food, poorer segments of society had little cultural bias against overindulging in food, or putting on excess pounds, as industrialization raised incomes and made rich food cheaply available.”

      Apparently neither did King Henry VIII.

    • Unfortunately, food choices are getting mixed up with political affiliations. Look at all the right-wing commentary about how “Michele Obama is not going to tell US how to eat.” And consider how Fox is trying to make a hero of Paula Deen, a woman who peddles fried cheesecake as “food.”

    • Pollanites??
      Does Paula Deen know about this? She could add it to her somewhat limited vocabulary.

    • John Mackey has admitted that Whole Foods is full of organic funk food. I found this 2009 interview in which he says they are going to be shifting back to healthy foods. Guess that must not have worked out.


    • Cultural attitudes are slow to change and, particularly for lower income groups, may have been forged in times of hunger.

      My in-laws grew up in Stalinist Russia and have memories of constant hunger. They had many attitudes about food, most importantly that you never waste food. My MIL was far happier seeing an overweight child eat thirds of something than throwing away food that wasn’t eaten and went bad. You had to listen to her stories of getting up well before dawn to stand in the bread line for one loaf of bread that would be the large family’s only food for the day to appreciate her horror at the thought of edible food going uneaten. They transmitted these values to their children, who passed them along to grandchildren, teaching them to clean their plates,regardless of the quantity relative to caloric needs.

      African-Americans are particularly prone to obesity and it may have been from attitudes towards food developed when they were struggling to keep enough food on the table.

      • “My in-laws grew up in Stalinist Russia and have memories of constant hunger.”

        (The following is humor; but I think you have put your finger on a serious problem. Culture is important. Even just the idea that meals include dessert is devastating to any attempt to keep weight under control. Back in 1981 I went to dinner with a crowd I normally don’t hang out with, and when asked what I wanted for dessert, said “I’m already full, I’ll just have coffee.” The reaction made it clear that I had just broken a major social taboo. Not eating dessert was not acceptable.)

        You think you have problems? Phoey. You don’t know what the word problem means.

        Our CEO is one of the top competitive swimmers in her (age-bracketed) events in Japan. She practices four or five days a week, goes to the “super body” training course at the sports club, and has shoulders like a truck driver when seen from behind. And she likes to cook. And she doles out larger servings to her hubby than to herself. Hubby is a nerd from a nerd family whose only “sports” were the high-school chess team, juggling in college and grad school, and now bowling.

        (I was actually doing OK on weight: 6’2″ and under 175, but recently shot up to 180. And it’s all around the waist. Yuck.)

    • The answer to obesity gets even more complicated when you consider that there are still plenty of people–like my self–who have always struggled with being underweight. Most of the “healthy” foods that society focuses on these days are healthy not because they are dense with nutrients that are good for you, but rather the opposite–“healthy” because they are highly inefficient and therefore don’t deliver many calories. So when your employer’s cafeteria decides to serve only “healthy” foods, that makes it hard for those of us who were never able to stomach large volumes of food.

    • Both Aaron and the Atlantic article refer to “Inner Peas” and other junk foods (implicitly) marketed as healthy. Clearly, one cannot rely on product names or on-package descriptions. Fortunately, Nutrition Facts labels are required by law. Anyone interested in nutrition for himself or his family must study the labels. See US FDA website.