Over the years, I have met any number of people who bristle at the notion of basing our food choices on anything other than taste. It will diminish enjoyment, they believe.
For me, though, it’s been a lifetime of discovering that the more I choose food based on the effects of my choices, the more pleasure I get from eating. The more I act on what I know, the less I feel like a victim, and the more power I feel I have. Knowledge has changed me, but has not destroyed enjoyment. In fact, I’ve learned that knowledge greatly improves taste.
We might think that consciously choosing what we eat is somehow “political”—and of course it is. However, the most important food choice a person can make in today’s world is not whether to buy organic or locally grown food, or whether to avoid meat or genetically modified food; it’s choosing to walk into a fast-food chain or grabbing processed food off the supermarket shelf. These actions say a great deal more than one would think; they reinforce a particular structure of decision-making power in our society, one that undermines our own well being. A typical American supermarket sells 30,000 different items, half of which are produced by a mere 10 corporations. And on the boards of these 10 corporations sit 138 people, a tiny group deciding what goes into our bodies. Now that’s power!
An epidemic is sweeping this country. The epidemic is obesity: Now six in 10 adults are overweight or obese. In defining the epidemic as obesity, however, we can mislead ourselves. Obesity is a result, not the cause. The main cause is the food we’re eating—the high-fat, salty, sugar-laden, processed, meat-centered diet, unknown to our species until this generation. This food is fueling not only heart disease and cancer, but diabetes, hypertension, and other life-threatening illnesses.
Some argue that people have the right to choose food that’s bad for them. But choice requires no coercion, and real options, as well as awareness of consequences—all sadly lacking. A species choosing to eat what’s literally killing them would certainly be an evolutionary first!
It’s no mystery why food companies are able to push their products so easily. Human beings evolved with what nutritionists call a “weak satiation” mechanism for sugar and fat—meaning we can eat a lot at one time—because this trait served us well as hunter-gatherers. Now it’s our Achilles’ heel, and food companies have us by that heel. Half the calories Americans consume now come from fat and sugar.
Our choices are even more constricted because institutions, entrusted with helping us sort out what’s healthy and what’s not (including the U.S. Department of Agriculture), are themselves influenced by lobbyists within the food industry. But consumers are beginning to rebel. And now some educators and parents have realized that fast food in schools is almost as dangerous as cigarettes; at least 20 states have introduced bills to limit low-nutrition foods in schools.
Beyond schools, each of us can participate. We can choose to simply not respond to food industry propaganda (i.e., advertising). Our single most important choice might well be where we shop for food. If we forego supermarkets as much as possible and connect with community-supported agriculture, linking us directly with local organic farms in the summer, and if we shop in food co-ops and farmers’ markets, our palates are consistently tempted by precisely the whole plant foods best for our bodies. If we demand public policies that shift tax subsidies away from large chemical operations and toward independent and non-chemical farms, we make choosing healthy food easier for all of us.