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The Inside Story of the Food Industry, Americas Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It
By Kelly D. Horgen, Katherine Battle Brownell
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2004The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved.
BIG FOOD, BIG MONEY, BIG PEOPLE
It came quickly, with little fanfare, and was out of control before the nation noticed. Obesity, diabetes, and other diseases caused by poor diet and sedentary lifestyle now affect the health, happiness, and vitality of millions of men, women, and, most tragically, children and pose a major threat to the health care resources of the United States. Most alarming has been the national inaction in the face of crisis, the near-total surrender to a powerful food industry, and the lack of innovation in preventing further havoc.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labels the obesity problem an "epidemic." Within the United States, 64.5 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, with the number growing. For many reasons, some obvious and some not, the increase in overweight children is twice that seen in adults.
Other nations are in hot pursuit. Country after country follows the American lead and grows heavier. Overconsumption has replaced malnutrition as the world's top food problem. From Banff to Buenos Aires, from Siberia to the Sahara, the world need only look to America to see its future. There are now clinics for obese children in Beijing.
Similar to a new virus without natural enemies, our lifestyle of abundant food and inactivity faces little opposition. Quite the contrary, powerful forces push it forward, spreading the problem to all segments of the population. These forces are woven so tightly into our social systems (economics, health care system, even education) that change seems almost beyond imagination. Despite talk of an obesity crisis, government reports, and Presidents pushing exercise, obesity is increasing in all races, ages, income groups, and areas of the world.
The picture with children is sad. Projecting ahead to their adult years, today's children face a life of serious health problems and severely impaired quality of life. Children are targeted in a relentless way by the food companies. Institutions such as schools that would like to protect children instead must sell soft drinks and snack foods to function.
While writing this chapter, one of us (KB) visited his brother, wife, and three-year-old niece. This girl, the daughter of educated, successful, health-conscious parents, ran by, so a quick interview was conducted.
"What's your favorite breakfast?"
"I like Buzz Lightyear" was her reply.
"Where do you like to go out to eat?"
"I like to go everywhere," she said.
"What's your most favorite place of all?"
"McDonald's," she answered.
It is easy to blame parents, but they face off every day with an environment that grabs their children and won't let go. Children and the parents who raise them do not get what they deserve—conditions that support healthy eating and physical activity. The environment wins in most cases, and we have an epidemic to show for it.
By any definition, we face an emergency.
The reasons for this growing problem are simple and complex at the same time. People eat too much and exercise too little, but this easy truth masks a fascinating dance of genetics with modern lifestyle. Economics, breakthroughs in technology, how our nation thinks about food, and, of course, the powerful and sophisticated food industry, are all actors in this tragic play. Our environment is textured with risk. It intersects with genes in a way that makes an obese population a predictable consequence of modern life.
Some individuals have the biological fortune or the skills to resist this risk, leading to arguments that weight control is a matter of personal responsibility. Choices people make are important, but the nation has played the willpower and restraint cards for years and finds itself trumped again and again by an environment that overwhelms the resources of most people.
The cost of inaction will multiply human suffering, place our nation at a strategic disadvantage, and have a massive impact on health care costs.
Picture yourself a child, rather a zygote. Your father's sperm penetrates your mother's egg, unleashing a cascade of biological events. What you will eat later in life, your upper and lower limits for body weight, and how your physiology responds to being sedentary have been partially fixed.
The lives of your ancestors, dating back many thousands of years, reside in your genes. Unpredictable food supplies and looming starvation were their everyday realities. Those who adapted ate voraciously when food appeared, stored energy (as body fat) with extreme efficiency, survived later scarcity, and contributed to the gene pool from which you draw your DNA.
Married to this food biology are genes related to physical activity. Extreme exertion was once required to hunt and gather food. The body functioned optimally with bouts of heavy activity punctuated by periods of rest needed to conserve energy. Modern culture has removed strenuous exercise.
You are an exquisitely efficient calorie conservation machine. Your genes match nicely with a scarce food supply, but not with modern living conditions. As a child, you are about to be broadsided by a "toxic" environment. Your body is unprepared for the plummeting need to be physically active and cannot anticipate the impending confrontation with Big—Big Gulp, Big Grab, Big Mac, Biggie Fries, Big everything.
If you could speak with your ancient ancestors, they would explain that people eat a lot when food is abundant, particularly foods high in fat, sugar, and calories, a fact proven by scientists thousands of years later. These foods provide quick energy but more important, are optimal for storing energy.
As you breathe for the first time outside the womb, your genes are mismatched with modern conditions. The environment is distorted beyond your body's ability to cope. It will pound you with inducements to eat, make exertion unnecessary, and do little to defend you against diseases that most threaten you.
Good fortune may bring you parents who are committed to healthy eating. They keep junk food out of the home, have healthy foods available, and teach you good nutrition. But then you go to play groups, birthday parties, and school. You see billboards, watch TV, go to movies, and travel the supermarket aisles where your favorite Disney and Nickelodeon characters are linked with sugared cereals, snack foods, and ice cream. Your parents now face Goliath.
If you are a typical child, you will be introduced early to fast foods, snack foods, and soft drinks. Your tiny fingers might have grasped baby bottles bearing soft drink company logos. Television connects you with some of Madison Avenue's brightest minds, hence you may recognize Ronald McDonald before you can speak. You will like the silly rabbit, Fred and Barney, the leprechaun, the friendly captain, the clown, and the pitcher with a smiling face. You see them thousands of times each year and see nothing similar for apples or carrots.
You may start to weigh too much, not a surprise given your diet. You eat too many calories, too much sugar, and too much fat, but have too few fruits and vegetables and too little fiber. Your weight, diet, and inactivity each increase your risk for very bad diseases, but nobody thinks of this—you're just a kid.
If you are very overweight, you could develop Type 2 diabetes before age ten. Kids like to feel grown up, so here is a chance—this disease used to be called Adult Onset Diabetes. You could have a heart attack, be blind, or need coronary bypass surgery before age twenty-five.
Not every child will develop this way. So
Excerpted from FOOD FIGHT by Kelly D. Horgen. Copyright © 2004 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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