We are finally ready to tackle the tragic paradox of obesity coexisting with malnutrition. How come over 40% of American adults are obese while many are hungry? Congress recently allocated $2.5 million for a White House conference on food, nutrition, and hunger to get answers. Yet already, the process risks becoming another giveaway for Big Food.
Senator Cory Booker was right when he said, as chair of a conference introductory hearing, that the problem was one of “nutritional insecurity.” People are eating too many “addictive ultra-processed foods” causing them to overeat “empty calories” while providing little nutrition. “Too many Americans are overfed but undernourished,” he said, “and we’re seeing these staggering rates of disease and early death.”
In other words, people don’t just need enough calories: they need high quality calories that provide all the vitamins and minerals essential for a long and healthy life.
It’s hard to imagine malnutrition here in America. Still, “public health concerns for the majority of the American population” include under-consumption of vitamin D, calcium and potassium, according to a recent government report.
There’s no time to lose. Booker said nearly one in three dollars in the federal budget goes to health care, mostly to fight [diet-related] diseases”, and obesity is the leading medical reason why 71% of young Americans are disqualified for military service.
The solution seems obvious: steer people toward nutrient-dense whole foods. Scientists have known about these foods for decades. More recently, an article picked out 6 “priority” nutrients and created a chart on how to find them: in fish, shellfish, organ meats, dark leafy greens, meat, eggs, and dairy. This list might surprise Booker, who is a vegan, but many plant nutrients, including iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B12, A, and D3, are not in a form humans can. can easily absorb.
Are we going to opt for the whole food solution? Reading the tea leaves of the conference preparation, I am skeptical. An influential group of experts and prominent public figures convened in part by the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy lobbied for a “Food as Medicine” panel in Congress, in 2018. This turned into a series of lectures of the same name, with speakers who include health experts but also investors and senior executives of Big Food, such as Unilever, Danone and, more systematically, PepsiCo. Obviously, these interests do not benefit from whole foods.
Another tea leaf comes from a new food ranking system penned by Dean Friedman last fall, which reads like a Valentine’s Day for Big Food. He gives Cheerios 95 points out of 100. Top marks also went to Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs. In total, nearly 70 brand-name cereals from General Mills, Kellogg’s and Post were rated twice as high as eggs cooked in butter or a piece of whole-wheat toast.
How can Cheerios be one of the healthiest foods on the planet? The answer is that refined grains must legally be fortified with folic acid, iron, and B vitamins. These super-charged grains are the origin of the “vitamin donut,” promoted for decades by the Donut Corporation of America, and why Kellogg’s donuts and pop-tarts are served in school lunches, along with Pepsi Co’s “Cheetos” and “Munchis.” Even Domino’s Pizza has a deal to deliver “smart” slices to school kids. These foods are vehicles for the necessary nutrients.
Fortified and refined grains are the food industry’s way of turning processed foods into nutrient-rich “health foods”.
The idea is not new. Enrichment programs began in the 1920s with the well-intentioned goal of preventing malnutrition. Attaching essential vitamins and minerals to cheap, stable grains seemed like a straight win for getting complete nutrition. That’s why our nation’s premier nutritional policy, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, still recommends three servings of refined grains a day. Less “would lead to nutrient deficiencies”, as recently concluded by the experts of the guidelines.
However, and above all, our understanding of cereals and health has evolved.
Now, a large number of rigorous clinical trials – the kind of definitive science that can show cause and effect – show that people with diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases are healthier when carbohydrates, such as than sugars and starches, are limited. This is why limiting carbohydrates is now recognized as superior, in some respects, both by American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.
Booker was right. The twin scourges of malnutrition and obesity are rooted in too many empty calories that lack needed nutrients. Big Food shouldn’t be allowed to co-opt this potential landmark conference with its carb-heavy processed foods. Getting nutrients from whole, natural foods would do much better in the service of public health.
Nina Teicholz is a journalist and author unrelated to any industry.
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