How Healthy Should Food Be?

I recently read an article called “How junk food can end obesity” by David Freedman (published in the July/August 2013 issue of the Atlantic magazine) that got me to thinking about what “healthy food” really means and how it relates to what has been called an obesity crisis currently affecting the United States.

In his article Mr. Freedman’s point is that “healthy food”, as that term is being used in the press, is not going to solve the problem.  I think that we can all agree that fresh vegetables, lots of fruit, and using ingredients that you can either identify, understand, or pronounce can be considered to be healthy.  By eating them in the correct portions we can solve the weight issue that is costing, and is going to cost, the US healthcare system so much money and, conceivably, effect the economy by reducing the productivity of the average American worker.

The problem, according to Mr. Freedman, is that healthy eating is out of the economic reach of the group of people that are most vulnerable to obesity – the folks in the lower half of the economic spectrum.  Fresh ingredients, when they can be found, are expensive and take time to prepare for folks who may be holding down more than one job.  Most importantly healthy eating habits are not part of the  routine that these folks currently follow.  His question is: how realistic is it to get people to change their eating habits even if “healthy foods” were economic and available?

To compound the problem, the “healthy food” proponents consider all fast food to be bad for you.  Basically, if you aren’t eating fresh then you are eating badly.  The demonizing of the fast food industry, according to Mr. Freedman, is keeping the industry from getting the credit it deserves for trying to gradually reform their menus.   The industry’s challenge is that people eat in their restaurants because the food is affordable, fast, and tastes good.

Mr. Freedman’s solution is that weight control is based on a calorie in versus calories out understanding.  If you burn more calories than you take in, the calorie deficit will cause weight loss over time.  Even reducing your intake by 100 calories per day could have a big impact over time. The fast feeders are trying to introduce foods with slightly lower caloric value while keeping it fast, relatively cheap, and tasty.  (An interesting side note is that there has been research showing that if a food is promoted as “healthy” in a fast food restaurant the per customer caloric intake goes up because people order the healthy item and then a high caloric item to reward themselves for being good).

Mr. Freedman’s recommendation is that public policy needs to be moving towards the gradual reduction of calories in fast food, rather than the wholesale condemnation of the industry, in conjunction with promoting a “healthy food” agenda.  By working with the fast feeders in trialing and approving new ingredients (including ones that you can’t recognize or pronounce but are not unhealthy) the overall consumption of calories will go down and, one hopes, the brakes will be put on the public health issue.

The reason that I bring this up is that, generally speaking, convenience stores are considered to be the equivalent of fast food restaurants – our products are not healthy.  I think that Mr. Freedman’s article provides enough “food for thought” that it should galvanize us to work with our suppliers to push for improvements in the ingredients and calorie value of the products that we sell in our stores.  The obesity crisis will not be conquered in one fell swoop but will be eradicated by a thousand cuts.  We need to do our part.