Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More Food Choices, More Obesity?

Some of us are old enough to remember when supermarkets didn't offer anywhere near the variety they do now.  Probably all of us remember.  Starfruit. Purple potatoes. Gnarly heirloom tomatoes. Hot sauce-flavored dark chocolates. Sage-flavored grapefruit juice. Yes, it's true.

 Choices in the cereal aisle are now staggering (check out Wikipedia's list of them), the number of teas and coffees mind-boggling, the bottles, cartons and cans of waters and juices (acai, pomegranate, passion fruit, anyone?) towering.  It's enough to paralyze shoppers, and selecting products has become a lengthy process of squinting at labels, noting price-per-ounce on shelves, calculating cross-brand sizing and wondering which of those strange ingredients are benign or worrisome.  Is this just a new chore of modern life, an expansion of taste enjoyment--or a threat?

Research now suggests the dizzying array of products in supermarkets is actually harmful. It's making us obese.

  In Los Angeles, when I grew up, our Safeway and Ralphs chains offered only classic pasta shapes (spaghetti, macaroni, lasagna), no exotic fruits (and none out of season) and a handful of ice cream flavors from a few manufacturers (Neapolitan was a boon because it combined all three top flavors).

  In those "good old days," obesity was rare, and the percentage of overweight citizens low.  US Center for Disease Control statistics show that in 1962, 13.4% of adults were obese (BMI between 30 and 40), and .9% "extremely obese" (BMI more than 40).  This compares to 2005-6, years of the highest rates recorded, when 35.1% of adults were obese, and 6.2% "extremely obese"(since then obesity rates have declined slightly). Men's average weight shot up 30 pounds, and women's about 25 between 1960 and 2002 (average height increased 1.5 inches for men and an inch for women in the same period).

Those who blame plenty for increasing obesity argue that easy access and food's very deliciousness causes people to over-ride bodily cues. With so many gourmet foods appealing to the most specific tastes, each person in the household can maintain a personally-pleasing stash of favorite indulgences. 

Yummy foods beckon between meals when boredom or stress plead for a distraction, and the mere existence of a plethora of delights is therefore the source of deleterious girth.
Studies show that "salience" of food increases consumption.  In other words, if it's right there, especially if it's visible, it calls to you.  Also important is its convenience--food easy to procure and prepare, like the burgeoning number of ready-to-eat goodies increasingly populating store shelves, according to data, increases the amount of food munched.

Other research shows that awareness of abundant food options encourages eating:  More foods on the plate, in fancier presentations.  More brands of more new items in the stores, of multiple flavors and colors.  More depictions of food, touted by "celebrity chefs," advertised everywhere you look--at prices easy to afford--hammer the mind, offering constant enticement to own, manipulate, and ingest.

A front-page story in the New York Times this week said that retailers are returning to cluttered, high-shelved, abundant-product displays because a clean, pared-down shopping environment, while deemed more pleasant by customers, hurt the bottom line.  More stuff, says the article, gives shoppers the idea they're getting a better deal, as well as offering more sources of temptation.

So, in the days when tiny mom-and-pop stores commonly provided one's comestibles, and when supermarkets offered an average of 9,000 items (1974), people went to the grocer looking for ingredients rather than immediately edible satisfaction.

No more, now that the average number of items in a supermarket has climbed to about fifty thousand.  And routinely, food emporiums include delicatessens with glass cases showing prepared salads and main courses, bakeries wafting their warm cookie fragrances, salad and olive and cheese bars where you can fill plastic containers yourself.  Rows of bins and crocks, with handy clear bags and little shovels, and dangling pens to write ring-up codes.
And all this food is cheap.  It may feel like the price of food is high and becoming ridiculous, but the proportion of household income devoted to it is far less than in the days when choices were more limited.  In 1950, Americans spent about a fourth of their income on food; by 2009, they spent less than 10%.

Can we really blame what overwrought pundits call "the obesity epidemic" on greater food options?  Are retailers' ads, media's ubiquitous images, and stores' bounty so effectively brainwashing us that we've allowed this massive expansion?

Easy access and ability to afford all these wonderful choices have contributed to the problem, but don't explain it.  Mainly because schools and government have vociferously discussed nutrition, for decades.  For example, the federal "Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program" taught millions of low-income youth and young adults about good food choices--for forty years! It started in 1969; surely by the time the obesity epidemic started--about 1980--and as it escalated to its peak in 2000--the national program would have disseminated its message about healthy eating.  Yet obesity kept growing.  (Despite its title, I doubt the program educated toward "expanded food and nutrition...")

And 45 of the 50 states require students take a health course, usually three, during elementary, middle and high school years. Even states that don't require a course have support programs on healthy eating, obesity-prevention and exercise.  We know what to eat.  But it seems the "new normal" has inflated anyway.

In previous posts, I've discussed parents' inability to curb their kids' intake of sweets, despite healthy food alternatives, incessant inculcation and even personal vigilance, such as the Philadelphia parents who stood outside corner stores between their homes and their children's schools.  Could it be that all this focus on "healthy diets" switches people from the "eat to live" orientation to the "live to eat" push-pull between tasty treats and the "you shoulds" of educators and experts?

Naturally thin people who eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full aren't compelled to "take advantage" of the bountiful food in their paths.  They eat what their bodies suggest would be most pleasing, and listen when they feel full.  Why does it seem there are there fewer such people around nowadays to emulate?  Answering this would be key to knowing why the rate of adult obesity jumped between 1980 and 2000 and since then has remained level.  And it might help examine why childhood obesity also increased in that time period.

I wonder about the impact of the Adeno36 virus, as well as genetically-related changes we haven't investigated. Some researchers suspect air conditioning, maternal age, or medication for the bulging figures.  In the meantime, I consider the dazzling choices in the supermarket evidence of our flourishing economy and creative product innovation, not evil sources of decay and obesity.


  1. I'm wondering how many kids were dissuaded from smoking because of Joe Camel's demise, or, how many smoked even more because of the constant caterwauling against it. All this focus on NOT eating indeed causes people to think about food more than necessary, I think. The infamous "don't think about pink elephants" axiom. I await your investigative completion as to the reasons for this "epidemic"; keep us informed!

  2. I'm suprised how unscientific this column is, considering the source. Study the real research (double blind studies not data mines) read Gary Taubes books and study the excellent website junkfoodscience.com. Even watch the non-scientific, but excellent, movie Fat Head.

    There have always been fat people, there have always been skinny people, the facts are fat people live longer (all case mortality) than skinny people.

    Now everyone stop worrying about it and for gosh sakes stop trying to control how fat or how skinny people are and just live your life.