If Obesity is a Disease, Should Processed Foods Be Banned? Or Are They the Cure?

The American Medical Association recently made a statement on obesity—a health epidemic sweeping the nation. They called it a disease. “Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” Dr. Patrice Harris a member of the association’s board, said in a statement.

The announcement has divided many health experts. Will lumping obesity in with cancer, heart disease, arthritis and the scores of other legitimate diseases bring more medical focus to “curing” it? Or will it fade like the inked prescription labels for the many other chronic ailments Americans guzzle down pills for with no real cures in sight?

Obesity’s causes are pretty cut and dry. The same can’t be said for lupus or cancer or even heart disease. And even though some weight issues are hereditary, and others may be a result of the chemical-coated world we now live in, what we put in our mouths every day greatly impacts our chances of becoming obese.

Author David H. Freedman thinks our obesity crisis may actually be cured by processed food—one of the biggest culprits in America’s battle of the bulge. In an article for the Atlantic (“How Junk Food Can End Obesity”), he blames the foodie elite “minority” for scaring us away from processed foods so much that it may have forced the industry into doing even worse things to get our dollars: “An enormous amount of media space has been dedicated to promoting the notion that all processed food, and only processed food, is making us sickly and overweight,” he writes, suggesting that the fast food industry as a result has “turned all the powers of food-processing science loose on engineering its offerings to addict us to fat, sugar, and salt, causing or at least heavily contributing to the obesity crisis.”

It’s true. The healthier we want our food, and the more demands we make of food manufacturers to sate this desire, the more crafty they get at manipulation. They gloss their shiny boxes and cans with buzzwords they know we want to read like “low sodium”, “all-natural”, “zero trans fats”—in desperate attempts to keep sales up and consumer demand high. They hire celebrities and launch witty campaigns that, hopefully, remind us how important brands are in our diet, and in our own identity.

It’s an inherently problematic scheme. Food manufacturers need to keep selling us products, both the old and the brand new. They buy the cheapest ingredients because most of their money is spent on clever ads designed to forge an emotional bond between consumer and the carton’s caloric content. You shouldn’t just like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese; you should absolutely love it, like you do a television show, a book, a record, a pet.

Freedman targets the author and food expert, Michael Pollan (calling his followers “Pollanites”) who has become the token spokesperson for avoiding processed foods whenever possible. He writes, “Foodlike substances, the derisive term Pollan uses to describe processed foods, is now a solid part of the elite vernacular.”

Should we really have another opinion on processed foods? Freedman goes on to compare made-from-scratch foods (albeit, a Mark Bittman recipe cooked in bacon fat) to not being much healthier than a Whopper. “The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy,” he writes. And that may also be true. But isn’t it common sense? Have we learned nothing from thousands of years of human history and how the rest of our fellow earthlings consume calories? Granted, in a post-apocalyptic world where all that survived to eat were cans of Spam and bags of Combos, most people would be pretty darn grateful, and satisfied, if not a little nauseated. But healthy?

We know that the human body responds differently to fresh, whole foods than it does to a canister of Pringles or a Doritos Locos Taco Bell Taco, which may actually be clinically addictive. In all his Pollan-bashing, Freedman overlooks some major issues with processed foods, namely industrialization.

Call me a Pollanite (seriously, please call me that), but isn’t removing the factory from my food a bit healthier for me and the planet? Foodborne illnesses result from the industrialization of processed foods. Rarely do they come from a backyard garden. And if they do–it’s also often because of contamination that began in a factory setting—be that farm run-off, contaminated soil, air or water. Pollution, deforestation, excessive use of fossil fuels all result from our reliance on the food industry. We can’t expect an industry that’s inherently unhealthy for the planet to offer us any real health benefits in the long run.

The food industry should perhaps be referred to more accurately as industrial food. The priorities are clear: Industry certainly comes before food, and profits before that. When profits are the sole desired outcome—and let’s not kid ourselves otherwise—there is always a demand for more. That means more “new” products. More new versions of the old (“now with more chocolatey flavor!”), and new acquisitions—buying up other brands to add to the corporate portfolio.

“In many respects, the wholesome-food movement veers awfully close to religion,” writes Freedman, from what’s hopefully just a temporary Twinkie-induced state of delusion.

In his best attempts, Freedman envisions a world where restaurants like McDonald’s become beacons of health serving the lower-class communities unable to afford the ‘foodie elite’ trips to Whole Foods. He points to the “healthy” changes the chain has been making over the years like reducing sodium, adding fruit and low-fat dairy to the menu. But these changes are a bit like the difference between being shot at point blank range by an expert marksman or someone who just practices at the range a few times a month. There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to have a bullet in you either way. One’s just more likely to kill you quicker. What he doesn’t point to is the reason why our food deserts exist in the first place. Or, how many communities are working hard to bring fresh food into those areas. And when they do, health dramatically changes.

As our obesity crisis is now formally a disease, we need radical and effective treatment. A diet pill won’t do. A prescription for low-fat yogurt loaded with sweeteners, artificial and genetically modified ingredients won’t do either. We have a drastic situation on our hands that calls for drastic measures. Cutting out processed foods is the quickest and healthiest way to reducing obesity. Even the natural and organic versions. Buying single, whole ingredient foods and cooking from scratch can and does render people healthier. It reduces the risks for food poisoning. It lets you control those important ingredient levels for sodium, sugar, fat. It also connects us with our food—something Freedman seems reticent to emphasize.

When food, or like Pollan calls them, foodlike substances, create disease in a body, we can develop a very negative relationship with what we eat. It is, after all, the enemy. Learning to prepare fresh foods from scratch can cultivate a healthful relationship with things that will eventually become part of our body. What’s more healing than that? It’s not McDonald’s, no matter how healthy their menu becomes. Sure, processed foods may be here to stay. But obesity doesn’t have to be.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: ericskiff