DEti-related chronic diseases are the number one perennial killer in the United States, responsible for more deaths than Covid-19, even at the height of the pandemic. Yet we fail to define this as a “crisis”. In fact, our answer is lame: For decades, we’ve been telling people to “eat better,” a strategy that hasn’t worked and never will.
This is not possible, as the majority of the calories we produce are unhealthy. It is availability and access to food types that determine our diets, and these, in turn, are factors in agricultural policy. For a healthy population, we must mandate or at least incentivize growing real food for nutrition, not cheap meat and corn and soybeans for junk food.
As omnivores, humans have choices, but most of the choices available to Americans are bad. Literally: 60% of the calories in the food supply come in the form of ultra-processed foods (UPF, or junk food), which are the leading cause of diet-related illnesses. This means that hardly anyone can make a “right” choice every time, and many of us can barely make right choices.
And just saying “eat vegan” isn’t enough, because most junk food is actually made from plants; the future of food, especially when you add environmental factors, is plant-centric but minimally processed – plants close to their natural form, in diets that resemble those traditionally eaten by almost everyone until 20th century. To achieve this, we need to tackle the functioning of the entire food system.
Government mandates for public health, environmental protection, and even literacy can yield desirable results: laws or regulations regarding seat belts, smoking, light bulbs, recycling, public education have all improved public welfare. Yet no such effort has been made in the area of food, where the mantra of “behaviour change” replaces good policy.
Junk food and meat are both harmful, but must be considered separately: the case for reducing junk food consumption rests largely on the fact that FPUs dominate calorie intake in industrialized countries and that diseases diet-related (diabetes, heart disease, a dozen cancers) kill about 600,000 Americans a year. (In contrast, at the current rate, Covid-19 will kill 100,000 people in the United States next year.) Increasingly, studies show it’s not just ‘sugar’ or ‘inflammation’ or the “saturated fats” that cause these diseases, but rather a yet to be determined combination of factors inherent in UPF.
We can quickly reduce junk food consumption with better labeling laws, taxes on the most egregious offenders (especially sugary drinks), and limits on the sale of junk food on government property and to minors. All of these are being considered in various municipalities in the United States and even in foreign countries.
While eating meat in and of itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy, producing 10 billion animals a year – in the United States alone – for consumption has devastating effects on our health and environment. Negative effects abound: astronomical use of land and resources, generation of greenhouse gases, exposure and resistance to antibiotics, environmental damage and the carcinogenic impact of factory farms themselves. Unprocessed foods from the plant kingdom are cheaper, less harmful, and in many ways healthier than industrially produced meat.
Although few are in favor of banning meat, it is important to move beyond a fetishization of “animal protein” as essential to human health (it is not) and recognize that meat consumption in industrialized countries must be reduced. We can begin to do this by making production less damaging (Senator Cory Booker’s recent Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act would do this), which would reduce both yield and consumption.
Good measures here include restricting the barely regulated use of antibiotics in animal production; reduce monopolistic practices and support small farms, as well as local and regional production and consumption; limit emissions (currently almost unregulated) produced by factory farms; and defining and penalizing the type of animal cruelty accepted as “routine” in factory farms.
Of course, meat production would also be curbed by encouraging the cultivation and consumption of what the US Department of Agriculture (unironically) calls “specialty produce” – fruits and vegetables. The more land that produces crops other than corn and soybeans (mostly used to produce UPF and animal feed), the less meat and bric-a-brac we will eat. This could be accomplished first by emphasizing subsidies to encourage the cultivation and sale of real foods, and by ensuring that food programs receiving federal funds promote truly plant-based eating.
Rectifying gross historical injustices in the distribution of land in the United States, which has historically disadvantaged or excluded farmers of color, women and gay farmers, and encouraging new farmers to grow good food well, is also a step crucial.
None of this is, as critics argue, a return to more primitive farming methods, but a recognition that a mix of modern technology and the right policies would support agriculture that serves the citizens of the world, not its businesses. .
The “nudges” and behavioral incentives so popular with economists a decade ago are largely helpless. What would work are rules around production and consumption, and the sooner we start implementing them, the sooner we’ll address critical public welfare issues related to food.
Mark Bittman is a faculty member at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and author of Animal, Vegetable, Junk
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