Chances are you know someone who has died or is currently suffering from cancer, heart disease, or obesity. Each year, about 1.5 million people in the United States die from these diseases, and poor diet is a leading cause. As Americans, our individualistic mindset often causes us to quickly judge people, even ourselves, for the difficulty we experience trying to eat healthily. However, a close examination of the evidence shows that eating behaviors are strongly influenced by a disease-promoting food environment that is shaped more by corporate profit motives than it is based on our understanding of our neurobiology and nutritional needs. We have the power to reverse this trend and save lives.
Much of human evolution occurred in the context of scarce food and periods of starvation. To adapt, we evolved genes that make it pleasurable to consume high-calorie, sweet, fatty foods. We still prefer these foods today. Our choices are strongly influenced by the convenience, cost, and promotion of foods in our environment. Think about the last time you walked through a grocery store. How many of the foods lining the shelves were plants – legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, or 100% whole grains? These “real” foods are too often the exception rather than the norm in our current food environment, which is dominated by mass-produced, processed foods that have been engineered in ways that result in addictive behavior patterns and chronic disease. Processed foods are widely available, cheap, and heavily marketed to us by corporations in pursuit of their raison d’etre – maximizing profits by encouraging more and more consumption, all while externalizing the social costs of chronic disease. Food companies spend about $10 billion annually just marketing foods to our children that contain about 40% of calories from added sugars. Bearing striking similarity to many of the strategies used by Big Tobacco, the playbook of Big Food also includes spending exorbitant amounts of money lobbying our elected officials and influencing policy, raising doubt about the truthfulness of scientific research, misrepresenting evidence, stoking fear about government control impinging on individual freedoms, and vilifying critics as threats to civil liberties.
Their efforts have earned them the power to shape local food environments across the nation. Processed grains and added sugars and fats have increased the calorie content of the US food supply, and the latter two now comprise up to 40% of calories in our diets. The result is a food environment that promotes disease and premature mortality so predictably that it has been characterized as overtly “toxic” and touches the most intimate parts of our lives, like expressing love with cookies or eating white pasta at the family spaghetti night. We may feel joy in those moments, but we don’t feel joy when our loved ones suffer and die from the chronic diseases they develop from these foods. Processed, high calorie, nutrient-poor foods permeate nearly every corner of society: grocery stores, schools, workplaces, and restaurants. The foods in these environments overpower our natural tendency to maintain a healthy body weight and promote overeating. To keep our bodies healthy and prevent painful and costly suffering from chronic disease, we have no choice but to constantly override our once instinctual eating behaviors with willpower. This is hard work.
The challenge is even greater for those of us who are segregated to neighborhoods based on race and income. Lower-income neighborhoods have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores in favor of corner stores that stock unhealthy foods. Historical federal redlining policies that have led to race-based segregation further amplify the toxicity of the food environment. For example, compared to predominantly White neighborhoods, grocery stores in African American neighborhoods are often farther away and stock fewer healthy foods. These disparities in the local food environment may explain disparities in diet composition. Children can’t be blamed for preferring the foods most available in the zip code in which they were born.
Our children today are the first generation in the history of the United States who are expected to have more disease and live shorter lives than their parents, and the prognosis is even worse for African American children. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support this trend. We have the power to create an effective, equitable food system that is tethered to scientific evidence, structured around humans’ nutritional requirements, and tenable with our understanding of predictable and natural behaviors around eating. Focusing on individual people’s behaviors to treat obesity and chronic disease does not address the underlying cause. To replace the toxic food environment with an evidence-based food system, we need multi-level approaches that focus on prevention through policy solutions, community development, and engaging local institutions and organizations. Consider partnering with your local stakeholders, influencers, and decision-makers and support their existing efforts. They understand the needs of the community better than corporate executives accountable to shareholders. Pressure corporations to stop viewing children as marketing objects. Get involved with your local, city, county, or state food policy council, which brings together diverse people from the community to shape the food system. Consider tracking state and federal legislation related to food policy and community development and attend public hearings or provide comments or testimony if you have relevant expertise. Engage in our democracy by communicating with your representatives and tracking their voting records. Inquire about their position on food policy issues and ask them how you can help build a healthier food environment for the next generation.
For more information and suggestions for how to get involved, see the Union of Concerned Scientists Food Policy Toolkit.
Jessica is a 5th year doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo, where she also earned her MPH. Her work examines the role of economic scarcity and stress on cognition and behaviors that promote obesity. She has studied eating behaviors and obesity for the last 9 years and is an advocate for a healthy, equitable food environment.
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