When the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates met in Chicago mid-June, members approved a measure to label obesity a disease. Pointing to “an overabundance of clinical evidence to identify obesity as a multi-metabolic and hormonal disease state,” the policymaking body also noted that “obesity rates have doubled among adults in the last 20 years and tripled among children in a single generation.”
The resolution defined obesity as a “major public health problem,” stating AMA members will, among other actions, urge physicians and managed care organizations to also recognize obesity as a complex disorder, work with governmental agencies and other organizations to educate physicians on the prevention and management of overweight and obesity, and encourage federal support of research and public education about obesity and its risks.
When the nation’s largest single group of doctors speaks out like this, we should take notice and action. One approach pushed in recent years by authors like Michael Pollan, Michael Moss and Mark Bittman is that we should drop processed foods from our diets and eat more “wholesome” fare. These outspoken writers have blasted food industry heavyweights like Kraft and fast-food chains for making people fat and sick.
Not so fast, says David Freedman, an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – and How to Know When Not to Trust Them. In an in-depth, well-reasoned article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, he criticizes the Pollan faction and argues that food processors could be a powerful part of the solution.
“Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population – even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets,” Freedman writes. “And many of the dishes glorified by the wholesome-food movement are, in any case, as caloric and obesogenic as anything served in a Burger King.”
Freedman notes the expensive and inaccessible nature of so-called “wholesome” venues like Whole Foods to many Americans, and the lack of “clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.” The rising numbers of overweight and obese people, the realities of their diets, and the expansive reach of big food companies and fast-food restaurants, he argues, may make Big Food “uniquely positioned to improve our diets.” They can invest in the science and technology of what makes foods taste so good, for example; advancements in achieving irresistible taste and lower fat and sugar will do far more to solve the obesity problem than, say, outlawing French fries or expecting everyone to choose wheat grass over Coke.
Freedman also slams the wholesome-food, anti-processing contingent for dismissing new healthier fast-food options, such as McDonald’s egg-white sandwich, which is 100 calories less than its standard counterpart, the Egg McMuffin. That level of reduction in a single dish, he says, “places an eater exactly on track to eliminate a few hundred calories a day from his or her diet – the critical threshold needed for long-term weight loss.” And, he adds, it’s the type of step that overweight and obese people are much more likely to try and stick with than switching to very-low-calorie foods.
Additional steps, Freedman advocates, include public recognition of restaurant options and food products that are very good and very bad for us; better research into less obesogenic, high-mass-appeal foods; and a greater push in health care to educate and support people in making small, painless but beneficial changes in their diets. He calls for everyone to “start getting behind realistic solutions to the obesity crisis.”
What do you think about Freedman’s views? What are steps individuals, communities, companies and the nation can take to reduce obesity?