Race, Obesity and Willpower

Alice Randall has an op-ed in the New York Times that touches the third rail of weight, race and body image, Black Women and Fat.

I’m not going to take the easy shot at her focus on behavior change and healthy eating. America as a whole needs to reject the junk diet that is killing us. Personal responsibility is crucial, but not the whole story. It’s not just willpower.

I’m returning to an earlier post here for a look at other factors that are steering us to ill health–

“Are we just losing our willpower year by year?

About a third of people in nine states were obese in 2009, a dramatic increase from 2007, when only three states had obesity rates that high, a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

USA Today has a frightening map of obesity rates by state and year, and the CDC has the same map with more detail.

Were we all more virtuous thirty years ago, or has our environment changed? Certainly there are more temptations to be sedentary, and activity is being squeezed out of our daily routine. Cuts to public transit, to physical education in public schools, and lack of walkable communities all play a role. But what is happening to our food?

Between 1970 and 1990 the use of high-fructose corn syrup increased 1000%.

Corn is subsidized by the government, but people don’t eat that much fresh corn. The money is in the refined product. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s not only a sweetener, it’s a preservative. The industry says there’s no difference between one sweetener and another, but recent research suggests otherwise…

In the 40 years since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as a cost-effective sweetener in the American diet, rates of obesity in the U.S. have skyrocketed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1970, around 15 percent of the U.S. population met the definition for obesity; today, roughly one-third of the American adults are considered obese, the CDC reported. High-fructose corn syrup is found in a wide range of foods and beverages, including fruit juice, soda, cereal, bread, yogurt, ketchup and mayonnaise. On average, Americans consume 60 pounds of the sweetener per person every year.

“Our findings lend support to the theory that the excessive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup found in many beverages may be an important factor in the obesity epidemic,” Avena said.

Correlation is not causation, but a grocery list of new, refined additions to our diet and an increase in obesity and diabetes is suspicious.

As bad as this is, it could get worse. A study shows a link between high fructose corn syrup and the growth of cancer cells. Business journalist Dana Blankenhorn asks if corn syrup will become the new tobacco.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a corn-based sweetener developed in 1957 and engineered into a wide range of food starting in 1975, looks headed to becoming a major health concern of this generation.
In the process Archer Daniels-Midland may become a one-company “big tobacco.”

And just as tax money intended to supply our soldiers with food in WWII was diverted into big tobacco– resulting in addiction and lung cancer for many veterans of that war, industry lobbyists succeeded in changing regulations so that food stamps could be used for soda. It’s a diversion of money that is supposed to be used to aid farmers and improve nutrition for low-income people.

What would ADM do with all that corn syrup? One answer is found on the ingredients list of almost any processed food– it’s in thousands of foods we don’t even think of as sweet. Read the label. And there’s another business plan. Send it to the second most obese nation–Mexico.

Mexico lost a trade dispute that had protected its domestic sugar production, and a flood of cheap corn syrup from the USA will displace sugar in their soft drinks. Meanwhile, some health-conscious Americans are buying Mexican soda sweetened with sugar to avoid the scary HFCS.

I have to say that this just plain sounds like evil product dumping. Nothing good will come in the long run if we export something that Americans have come to believe is unfit to eat. There is even evidence that people of Native American descent have a higher risk of health problems from a diet high in refined carbs. Ten percent of Mexicans are indigenous, and the majority of the population have mixed ancestry.

So we’re talking about dumping a cheap sweetener that Americans are getting leery of on to a poor nation whose people may be especially vulnerable to the health risks.

Why are our tax dollars subsidizing corn anyway? It’s not the most nutritious food crop. Why can’t Archer Daniels Midland GROW SOMETHING ELSE?

Obesity and being overweight are complex problems, with many causes. Willpower is one factor, certainly. But human nature can’t have changed so drastically in thirty years that we’ve all become gluttons. What has changed in thirty years is our environment, many small losses of activity and nutrition, many new chemical pollutants in our air and water. We’re all subjects in a global experiment in unnatural living and the results are starting to come in.

One great accomplishment of our time was getting the lead out of our gasoline and cleaning up our housing. Another was getting cigarette smoking out of the workplace and educating people about secondhand smoke.

Fixing our national obesity and diabetes epidemic will take more than slapping a ‘natural’ label on a box of donuts. But for the most part we know what we need to do. My neighborhood farmer’s market is open tomorrow. They take food stamps, and not everything there is expensive. They are part of the solution. It’s a start.

MORE: Here’s a link to this week’s news on HFCS and cancer. Kraft and Coca-Cola are fighting a tax on soda. There’s no hope that one person can get around corporate lobbyists, but you vote with your dollar every time you go to the store. Yacht Club sells a nice sparkling water and it’s local.

DRUNKARD AMERICA: Michael Pollard in ‘The Omnivores’s Dillemma’ recounts a fascinating historical episode of widespread alcohol abuse and cheap corn whiskey. The dynamic is the same– lots of corn and the advantage of creating a processed, indestructable product that people will crave and buy—

As it is today, the clever thing to do with all that cheap corn was to process it — specifically, to distill it into alcohol. The Appalachian range made it difficult and expensive to transport surplus corn from the lightly settled Ohio River Valley to the more populous markets of the East, so farmers turned their corn into whiskey — a more compact and portable, and less perishable, value-added commodity. Before long the price of whiskey plummeted to the point that people could afford to drink it by the pint. Which is precisely what they did.

Prohibition was a disaster, but it was an attempt to solve a real social problem. One parellel here is that most people can handle alcohol in moderation, but most people can’t drink a pint of whiskey every day without becoming dependent or addicted. Most of us like sweets, but a highly refined sugar added to almost everything we eat is a diet that is addictive and unhealthy for anyone with a tendency to put on weight. When did you ever go to the store and buy a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup? The sixty pounds a year the average American consumes are added to other foods we buy. And some foods are so salted you don’t even know it’s sweetened unless you read the label.”

Alice Randall discloses that she struggles to keep her weight under 200 pounds. The photo of Josephine Baker as ‘fat’ is an example of the disconnect of image from the real lives of women. Josephine was a fit, athletic dancer with a beauty most of us can only aspire to, only in comparison to the anorexic fashion ideal is there anything wrong with her.

The combination of addictive eating and inactivity that is the norm of much of our population is a real threat to our national security and national health.

The answer is comprehensive change in our personal choices but also in our environment and culture. No easy road.

Documentary film-maker Byron Hurt shows us the challenges, the rewards and the urgency of addressing our health…

Hate to feel like I’m just a cut-and-paste blogger, so I want to mention that I enjoyed a local screening of ‘Soul Food Junkies’. Byron Hurt, the documentary maker, came to Rhode Island and showed his film at Miriam Hospital to health care workers, and later at an event open to the public at the Cathedral of Life Christian Assembly in Olneyville.

The film is an impressive balancing act– recognizing the centrality of food as culture, family and comfort– and the pleasure it brings. Also presenting the evidence that an un-balanced diet will take years off your life.

‘Soul Food Junkies’ was selected to show on PBS, date to be announced.

This short post is a taste, a larger portion will follow.

5 thoughts on “Race, Obesity and Willpower

  1. Good post, Nancy! You brought together a lot of good information here. We have taken HFCS out of our diet here, and I don’t miss it. It has mainly meant the quality of food has gone up in our house. We’ve also stopped eating red meat and pork. I hope I got on these issues soon enough to establish good habits for my kids — we preach that half your plate at each meal should be green or vegetable, preferably raw, and fresh fruit and nuts are the main snacks. It seems to be working out pretty good so far. Sometimes we still indulge — last night I made a great peach cobbler, and we do ice cream in small servings.

    1. Be careful about raw vegetables and check where your fruit is coming from-avoid Mexican and Central American fresh fruit or anything consumed raw-the produce is frequently contaminated with organisms you really don’t want to ingest.
      South American produce is a lot safer.
      Agree on HFCS-added sugar also.Red meat?It’s a discussion-I eat it and my last LDL was 74.Don’t get enslaved by cholestrol numbers-I had to get two stents anyway because diabetes destroys your arteries regardless.
      As a small child I had celiac and am one of a handful of people where it resolved after a few years-the result was I never developed a “sweet tooth”.my big downfall is spagheeti,rice,etc.
      BTW my mom was seriously overweight her whole life and it finally killed her-a few months short of 99.

  2. It seems to me that there should be a tax on sweeteners levied not at the point-of-sale (soda tax, etc.), but at the point of production. A per-calorie tax would be ideal, on all sweetening additives leaving the factory.

    On top of that, I like the idea of defining things that are ‘not food’, like potato chips, soda, etc. and then not letting food stamps be used for them. It’s not about some conservative idea of ‘punishing the poor’, just acknowledgement that the scene at the grocery at the beginning of the month is both unhealthy and heartbreaking.

  3. I agree with both comments above, and though I have plenty of food weaknesses (pizza!) I am fortunate I never cared for soda, even as a kid. I would only add that I don’t think folks should give in to corporate lobbyists and give up on some kind of a soda tax, but it will take persistance as it did for tobacco controls whch also faced corporate opposition.

  4. I agree with all of you. I suffer for diabetes. I have mad a lifestyle change. I am now eating right and exercising. I am slowly coming off my meds. and trying to teach other about it also. We must do our part to educate the next generation. Keep up the good work everyone.

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