Opinion | Why Your New Year’s Diet Is Doomed
Nearly all of us will fail at our annual round of New Year’s resolutions, which historically are led by eating better and losing weight.
But the struggle for your health is not a battle between you and the scale, or you and the brownies. Excessive weight is a symptom — not one of laziness, stupidity or a lack of discipline but of a food system that thrives on pushing junk. The struggle is really between you and the Big Food marketers that sell you that junk — their most profitable products — and politicians who enable them.
The war began in earnest in the second half of the 20th century with the development of what we now call ultra-processed foods: new creations that are stripped of nutrients and combined with sugars and artificial ingredients. These are products that, as the Brazilian scientist Carlos Monteiro and his colleagues say, contain ingredients that are “never or rarely used in kitchens.”
The development of these products wasn’t inevitable, and it certainly wasn’t “progress.” But it was made super-profitable by a combination of a surplus of grains, advanced manufacturing techniques, a retail system that made shelf life a higher priority than quality or nutrition, and a general failure to limit corporate consolidation. The dominance of ultra-processed foods took hold during the ’70s, when the gradual piling on of work and the resulting lack of personal time made real home cooking difficult or impossible for many people.
Now, more than half of our total calories come from ultra-processed foods, and our ancestors, no matter where they’re from, would not recognize our diet. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the number of calories consumed in snacks nearly doubled. We tend to blame fast-food restaurants for our poor eating habits, but much of what’s now consumed at home is ultra-processed food. The result has been an average weight gain for adults of more than 24 pounds between 1960 and 2002, and an epidemic of chronic disease.
In short, most of us are overweight, and losing that weight is so difficult because we’re set up to eat too much food that’s high in calories and bereft of nutrients. The new diet is believed to cause chronic disease, led by insulin resistance, which in turn causes Type 2 diabetes, a precursor to a variety of cardiovascular diseases.
Most people in the United States have at least one chronic disease (nearly half have two), and those diseases are responsible for about 70 percent of all deaths — more than 1.7 million per year. They’re not only our leading killers (Covid-19 pales by comparison); they’ve also shortened our average life span. Meanwhile, the dominant food corporations are happily spreading this deadly diet globally.
To say the deck is stacked against those trying to fight these trends is an understatement: Just as casinos are designed for gamblers to lose, the food system evolved to become a carefully engineered con to coerce us to eat the stuff that is at once most profitable for the food industry and worst for our health. There are winners and losers here.
The playbook for much of the junk-food marketing is similar to what the tobacco industry used for decades: advertising strategies focused on young people, a shirking of responsibility for poisoning entire populations, and an emphasis on individuals’ responsibility for their own health.
Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods aren’t as readily condemned as tobacco. While we know that nicotine is addictive and that cigarettes deliver a range of carcinogens, there are many ways (yet no single way) that the standard American diet increases the risk of other causes of premature death. The interactions among calorie intake, exercise, fat accumulation, insulin resistance and genetic background, along with other environmental factors that cause diet-related diseases (such as stress and generational poverty), are variable and complicated.
What is indisputable is that a better diet leads to better health. And most people know that a “good” diet is one that cuts back on ultra-processed foods and substitutes relatively unprocessed plant foods. (You can tinker at the margins, but it’s pretty much that simple.) On this, all responsible global experts agree.
But knowledge and sound advice aren’t enough: When most choices are destructive, it’s hard to choose wisely. And between your knowledge and the execution of your wishes stands a $14 billion food advertising budget, the vast majority of which promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy and unhealthy snacks. (The total budget of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for “chronic disease prevention and health promotion” is less than $1 billion.) Thus, the failed New Year’s resolutions.
Healthy food exists, of course, but it’s overwhelmingly marketed to a specific demographic: wealthier, often white people, almost always adults. Children, poorer whites and especially people of color are the primary targets of ultra-processed-food sales.
There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States, and they’re found more in poor areas than in wealthy ones. So-called food deserts — areas where healthy and affordable food choices are nil — are better labeled as areas of food apartheid and are found more often in poor areas, especially those whose residents are people of color. It’s money that brings supermarkets and good food options to a neighborhood, and even bringing a new grocery store to a lower-income neighborhood doesn’t improve things much if people’s incomes remain low.
The primary determinant of the quality of diet is income, not ignorance, intelligence or will. With 12 percent of Americans going hungry, and millions of households with children uncertain that they’ll be able to feed their kids, the “choice” is often between eating processed food and not eating at all. With each passing generation, unhealthful diets become more normalized. Food preferences begin to be shaped in utero. One study found that mothers with varied diets who breastfeed and wean their children with normal food create much different eaters than mothers with standard American diets who rely on formula and baby food. When we began to feed our children as marketers dictated, pushing the gloss of “convenience” and “modernity,” the cycle spiraled out of control.
Only good policy can rescue us, but government has largely been a part of this problem, embracing the interests of agribusiness, food processors, marketers and retailers. The weight that our society really needs to shed is the shame we allow ourselves to feel for a problem we didn’t create. Or, to put it more bluntly, the dead weight of the profiteers who poison us, and of the plutocrats who abet them.
Mark Bittman, a former food columnist for The Times, is the writer of the forthcoming “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” and is on the faculty of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.
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