The Food Problem

The subject of food and obesity in America is a controversial one.

Glenn Pendlay really struck a nerve with his rant about marketing and junk food in his Freshly Pressed piece I’m pissed. It’s a complicated subject and there are many points to consider, but let me share a personal story.

I was a fat little kid that grew up into a fat adult. I didn’t grow up on junk food, but rather rich Cuban food. Last year, I lost 60 pounds by eliminating many foods from my diet such as starches, which are a staple of Cuban cuisine. When I went to Australia, I put my “lifestyle change” (aka diet) on hold. I just wanted to eat what Oz has to offer – pizzas loaded with fresh vegetables, Turkish and Greek wraps stuffed with lamb kebab, decadent desserts, and all the wonderful homemade meals made by Theo that often included potatoes, lots of them.

After three months of eating anything and everything I wanted with abandon, I gained a pound. One pound. In America, all I have to do is look at food and I pack it right on.

For some time, it’s been held that there is a connection between obesity and income, but new studies are challenging this belief with surprising results. The problem goes deeper than this.

Americans highly value the idea of the individual. It’s your responsibility to eat well and exercise. Don’t push your healthy agenda on me and my family. This is a free country and I can do what I want. The problem, of course, is that we are all part of a community that ultimately pays heavily for this attitude. It’s the same one that dictates that if you’re not rich, it’s because you’re not working hard enough, ignoring a wide host of issues such as privilege, racism, class, misogyny, and so forth. It ignores that there many factors beyond our control. For instance, marketing and junk food are a problem, as Glenn goes on about, as is the propaganda surrounding issues of health and obesity. There are a lot of people out there who benefit tremendously from an unhealthy society. The diet, beauty, fitness, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries quickly come to mind.

Beyond that, I think my friend Lori is right when she said to me recently that, as Americans, we’ve grown accustomed to substandard food and we’re convinced it’s good. I’ve known for a long time that food in America is awful. It’s highly processed and nearly everything contains high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But it really hit home when I went food shopping for the first time in Australia.

At the market, I saw stall after stall of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, meats, and dairy products. But that’s the stuff we should be eating, right? What about the junk food? I’m not going to argue that Coca Cola is good for you, but consider this: in the U.S., Coca Cola contains HFCS; in Australia, it contains sugar. It sounds like the same, but it’s not. The body processes sugar and HFCS very differently. One is much worse for you than the other. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything in Australia with HFCS. In the States, even baby formula contains it and natural juices have been replaced by it. It’s no wonder our babies are obese.

As individuals, we could be making better food choices and exercising more, but we don’t live in a vacuum. What is hurting us most is living in a society that does not value good food and healthy living. It values profits. That’s why we’ve outsourced our production and import food rather than grow it. Because produce has to be arrive unspoiled from its exotic destination, it’s genetically modified to grow bigger, be resistant to pests, and picked too soon before it has had time to ripen and come into its full flavor. That’s why fresh, locally grown produce is difficult to find and usually more expensive. That’s why everything contains HFCS; it’s cheaper than sugar. That’s why our meats are full of hormones and antibiotics, to make our animals bigger and resistant to disease, to increase production and pump the bottom line.

For years, my mother has complained that tomatoes and chicken don’t taste like much anymore. It’s only been in the last 30 years that we’ve seen such a dramatic shift in the food industry. Older generations of Americans often remember what food is supposed to taste like. Today nearly everything we’re eating is a poor, cheap substitute for the real thing.


13 responses

  • Thank you. I had more or less the same reaction to that freshly pressed post – but I didn’t comment there because I don’t like to comment negatively on other people’s blogs. But this is a far more thoughtful post than the rant the other person posted (though he probably didn’t know it would be getting “freshly pressed” exposure).

    • I get where the blogger is coming from. And you’re right that he probably didn’t know he’d be Freshly Pressed; I certainly didn’t. Plus an entry like that, a controversial one, is likelier to get Pressed than a carefully considered (read: boring) one. It’s like TV ratings :-P

  • Huh. I gained five kilos since coming to Australia in January and I’ve NOT been eating whatever I want. In fact, I’ve been really careful about what I eat and exercising every day. It’s not fair!!!

    Actually, the problem was that I didn’t understand the food labels. I still don’t really get it, but I’m doing better now.

    I do love that there is such a wide variety of readily available fresh produce here. It’s also really easy to find free-range and organic meats and dairy products. In America, that can sometimes be tough, especially in small rural towns.

    Of course, on the radio the other day, someone was talking about Australia’s “obesity epidemic”. I was driving through a big shopping area and there were tons of people walking around. I was looking at them all and thinking, hardly any of these people are overweight, let alone obese! Where’s the epidemic???

    • I saw some overweight folks, but it doesn’t qualify as an epidemic as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I mean about a lot of propaganda. There are a lot of overweight people in the U.S., but I have doubts about the info we’re fed about it. Oh, and I totally don’t get the food labels.

  • Well written post and I could not agree with you more. Recently I have been looking for alternative ways to purchase my food. After becoming educated on “the american way” and realizing it is not good for my body I have been making better choices about the foods I choose. I look for organically grown foods or local restaurants who actually say where their food comes from. Sadly it costs more and is not the norm where I live (the Midwestern US), hence why I plan to move out of the country in a couple of years and try living a better, healthier and more sustainable life elsewhere.

    Sad the bottom line is more about the bottom dollar than people’s health in America. Maybe one day we will figure it out:-)

    Thanks for the post!

    • Local and organic food costs more here in Miami as well. It’s not really the norm in most places in the States. Best of luck to you and thanks for your comments!

  • I know that I have been having much less trouble maintaining my weight since I’ve taken pains to eliminate as much plastic waste from my life as I can. I know I don’t make any secret of my concerns over what plastic is doing to the environment, so I’ll avoid preaching about it here.

    But refusing to buy things packaged in plastic has meant I’ve had to begin making for myself a lot of things that most of us buy ready-made. (Bread, for instance.) Concerns about what it does to the ear to produce meats and non-organic fruits and vegetables, on a factory farm scale pushed me a step or two farther, and I find I’m eating a lot more local produce.

    I’m not trying to eat in a healthier way for my body. But trying to eat in a way that respects the planet a bit better has involved increasing my intake of fruits and vegetables, decreasing my intake of meat (which turns out to be really expensive if you won’t buy factory farmed stuff) and processed foods generally.

    And, yeah, I’m healthier.

    I like Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat food (as opposed to processed food substitutes!). Mostly vegetables. Not too much.

    It gets easier and more fun with practice. And it tastes better at the same time. Weird.

    • Cat! So nice to see you here. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it anywhere in my blog so far, but much of the food sold in the Australian markets is sold loose and you buy what you want. For example, rice, legumes, nuts, breads, and dried fruit pre-packaged. You can see some examples on my entry on the Vic market at http://stumbledownunder.com/2012/05/02/queen-victoria-market. I totally agree about eating real food and that it gets easier. Thanks so much for your comments!

      • That is so good to hear, Cosette! (And I enjoy your posts a lot–you often make me think or smile.)

        I’ve noticed, whenever one suggests to someone in the developed world–and especially in America–that we could benefit from changing some of our habits and expectations to ones that are gentler to the planet, it creates such a fuss in response! People act as if suggestions that we consider using less plastic packaging, or drying our clothes on a clothesline, or use

      • (Sorry–my comment got garbled. Here’s the end:)

        People act as if such suggestions mean going back to the Stone Age. When really, all around the world, there are millions of people whose lives are comfortable and convenient, and whose habits are friendlier to the earth.

        How nice to hear Australia is ahead of of us on this one! I admit, it does make it easier to change when we can see how other people have already found ways to live comfortably doing whatever it is we’re not used to ourselves…

        • I have a theory about why Americans create such a fuss over things like this that seem to go over smoothly in Australia and other countries. I’ll explore it in a future blog entry.

          • Please do, we (in the US) need all the help we can get! There’s a horrible disconnect among many about food issues here in the Pagan communtiy.

          • Indeed. And the Pagan community with its nature-oriented values are in a great position to help revolutionize our relationship with food. Thanks for your comments, genexs!


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