The dark side of junk food

I have been hooked by the topic of junk food. I wrote several posts based my previous knowledge: Obesity is not a personal choiceWhy fast food is not banned? and “Supersize me” surprises me. Now I continue reading articles, watching documentaries, looking for research evidences on this topic. The more I dive in, the darker it gets. The extent of the problem is much larger than I expected. The complexity of this issue is far beyond my imagination. I will summarize some of the things that I learned below:

  1. Junk food* makes people getting addicted the same way as cocaine. Ironically, most people believe drug dealers should be put into prison but they support food industry by saying that being fat is due to lack of self control and will power. They should as well support drug dealers because taking cocaine is a personal choice.
  2. Exercise can only burn off a small fraction of the calories we consume daily. It takes 42 minutes of cardio to burn off a Big Mac, another 40 minutes for the large french fries and again 30 minutes for the large coca cola. So if you eat one Big Mac meal, you need to do cardio for 2 hours to burn it off! And this is only 1 meal in the day. Exercise is good for health but not very helpful in losing weight if you do not change your diet.
  3. Junk food is the modern tobacco. Food industry is doing the same thing as tobacco company: poisoning the world. The only difference being food industry can do whatever they want without any restrictions, even targeting the children.
  4. Junk food with Low-fat label is loaded with sugar or artificial sweetener, which is not any better than fat. It makes people think that they are eating healthy food thus they will consume more.
  5. Junk food is everywhere, not only in fast food restaurants, supermarkets, vending machines, but also in schools, book stores, petrol stations, hospitals, office buildings. No matter where you go, you can see junk food within your reach. If there is alcohol everywhere, can we control the prevalence of alcoholism? Then how could it be possible to abate the surge of obesity if our living environment is filled up with all these addictive food?
  6. To eat healthy is a tough battle between you and the whole environment you live in. You need to be a superman to fight against millions of enemies jumping onto you everyday, food advertisements on TV, internet, newspaper, radio, in the metro, the shops, on the street; fast food restaurants on the streets, in the shopping centers, in the school, near the office; thousands of packages in the supermarkets, convenient stores, book shops and many more.
  7. Whenever the government tries to impose regulations on food industry, people get excited and start calling “Nanny state”. “The government is trying to control what we eat.” “I have the right to eat whatever I want.” Thus the battle against the food industry has never been successful though all doctors and nutritionists are advising people fast food and processed food are bad for health.
  8. This is the strange situation of our modern times: we know junk food is bad for health and we let the food industry do whatever they want, including advertising and selling it to our children. No parents would give a cigarette to a toddler but many would add coca cola to the milk bottle.

*Junk food includes fast food and all kinds of processed food.

“Supersize me” surprises me

Super Size me is an excellent documentary by Morgan Spurlock on his experiment of 30-day exclusive McDonald’s diet. It was filmed in 2004 in the US. I have heard about it several years ago but never had the chance to watch the entire film. Since I am writing about fast food in my previous post Why fast food is not banned?, I finally sat down for two hours and watched it without taking a pause. Here is the full film on Youtube. If you have free time, do watch it. If not, find some time to watch it please.

The film contains tons of information on diet, fast food industry, eating behavior of Americans, obesity, politics and so on. There are several points really surprised me:

  1. After 20 days of McDonald’s diet, Morgan had liver damage! The same level of damage of an alcohol abuser. Even his doctors couldn’t believe it. A diet that can damage one of your major organs in 20 days and millions of people are eating it everyday! This world is crazy, isn’t it?
  2. US has passed a law called “Cheeseburger bill” to ban people from suing fast food companies for harming their health and 26 states accepted the bill. WTF??? A law that forbids consumers from suing the food producers? Does anyone think this is rational? What about a law that bans drivers from suing car manufacturers, or that bans patients from suing the hospitals?
  3. Most schools in the US serve unhealthy food for lunch and physical activity classes are not mandatory. Ya right. While all the public health professionals are advocating healthy diet and physical activity, the children are learning to eat crap and stay inactive in their schools. It is surely an ideal country to raise up your kids, dear parents.
  4. People do not even know what a calorie is! What??? What kind of education they are getting? Do they simply stuff whatever in their months everyday without ever thinking about their health and well-being? Now I understand why my blog doesn’t have many followers because most of the people have no idea what I am talking about! Jesus!
  5. Parents think McDonald’s is healthy. Well, if they don’t even know what calorie is, I am not surprised that they think so. Media is filled with advertisements by fast food companies. They impose images of “healthy and happy” life and link them with their unhealthy products to make people believe they are a healthy option. And they are super good with marketing, especially with children.

You should definitely watch the film no matter you eat fast food or not. I am sure it will surprise you in one way or another. We need more people like Morgan in our society to fight for a healthy future for us and our children. If you care about your health and your family’s health, be courageous and voice your opinions.

Obesity is not a personal choice

“There is no good food or bad food. There is good diet and bad diet. Consumers should be responsible for their choice of diet.” This is the excuse the president of conMexico used to defense the food and beverage industry. The underlying message is that we are not responsible for obesity epidemic. The people who consume our products are. We try our best to make our products attractive and accessible. If the people consume them and get fat, it’s their own problem. Does that sound reasonable to you?

As I explained in my previous post Obesity and Evolution, we are naturally attracted to high-calorie food. Our body is designed to store fat when food is abundant. We are biologically obese-prone species. Choosing healthy, less calorie-dense food is “unnatural” for us. Most obese people do not want to be obese but the food environment surrounding them leaves them with no choice.

Genetic factors and personal diet choice do play a part but the major driving force of obesity epidemic are the environmental factors. Presence of fast food outlets, junk food in supermarkets, food advertisements on media, food prices are pushing people to choose high-calorie low-nutrient food, leading to over consumption of energy and micro-nutrient deficiency at the same time.

Despite billions of dollars spending on interventions and programs targeting obesity and related chronic conditions, not a single country in the world has successfully abated the surging rate of obesity. Why so? Almost all these programs are focusing on changing consumers’ choice, educating and monitoring them to choose healthy food and do exercise. If consumers’ choice is not the main cause of obesity, changing it will not reverse the trend.

Environmental factors are the ones to target for. Imagine if there is only healthy food in the supermarket, people will not buy packs of coca cola and potato chips back home. If fast food is banned, children will not eat burgers and fried chickens everyday. None of the interventions on consumers’ choice would be as effective as this. Then Why fast food is not banned? Fighting against food industry is not an easy task. The government may suffer huge economic loss and may not gain popularity. Thus they will not take any action unless we, the consumers, push them to do so. 

Obesity is not a personal choice. We should ask for a change in our environment to make it healthy for us and our children. If you are interested in knowing more on this topic, check out this documentary Globesity: Fat’s New Frontier.

Why fast food is not banned?

The war on tobacco continues till today ever since the link between tobacco and lung cancer was established in 1952. Governments around the world have taken various measures of tobacco control such as taxing, ban cigarette advertising, plain packaging, education etc. The prevalence of daily smokers decrease steadily over the years in most countries, except Russia. The graph below is made from data in OECD factbook 2013 on Google public data.

daily smoker

What about fast food? It has been proven to be unhealthy, causes obesity, increases risk of diabetes and heart disease. The consequences are much more severe than tobacco. Why fast food is not banned? Fast food outlets are standing up at almost every street corner and in every shopping malls all over the world. Fast food advertisements are on TV, at bus stop, in the subway, and anywhere else we lay eye on. Hundreds of fast food ads are bombing the children in the US.

Fast_Food_Advertising_n

McDonald’s is promoting happy meals to children and dollar meals to the poor without any restriction.

McDo

Why is it so? How come the government is not taking any action to control fast food, like what they did for tobacco? What is the dark truth behind it?

Most people who are against fast food ban cited reasons such as free will, freedom of choice, cheap (thus can feed the poor), fast, taste good. These reasons sound so lame, much like a child cry for a toy. They must be against tobacco control as well for the same reasons. They may not be the ones who get sick due to fast food, since they are healthy enough to surf the internet and shout out their opinions.They are not aware that their choice is affecting other people’s choice, especially children who are too young to make rational choices and poor people who do not have many choices. Because of their preference to fast food, fast food is colonizing the world. Children are used to fast food because it is surrounding the school and their house. Poor people are addicted to fast food because it is cheap and everywhere. Fast food may not make you sick but your choice can indirectly make other people sick. 

I can’t find out the real reason why fast food is not banned. I have listed below some might-be reasons:

  1. Solid research is needed. The current evidences are not strong enough to push the government to impose the ban on fast food. Unbiased, high quality research studies are needed to further confirm the harms of fast food on health. The studies would be difficult to carry out or get published due to the pressure from fast food industry.
  2. Tax revenue from fast food. As such a fast-growing industry, fast food outlets are generating huge tax revenue for the government. The government may be reluctant to close down a prosperous revenue-generating business even though it has negative impact on people’s health. Chemical factories are not banned though they causes air and water pollution that harms people’s health. Same goes for fast food.
  3. Strong lobbying by fast food. Fast food chains are powerful international corporations that can have a say on government policy. Their lobbyists are penetrating into the circle of decision makers and affecting national policies such as dietary guidelines and health programs. A bill that suggests fast food ban will be immediately rejected by their supporters.

What we can do as consumers is not contributing to their business. And tell our friends and family to stay away from fast food too. If everybody does so, the problem is solved.

Do not buy fast food. It kills.

Low-fat diet is not the devil

The recent report  Eat fat, cut the carbs and avoid snacking to reverse obesity and type 2 diabetes by National Obesity Forum has stirred up a heated debate over fat consumption. It has been featured on the Guardian, Independent and The Telegraph. The main point of the report is: fat is not the devil, carbs are. It also advises on eating “real” food and avoid processed food.

Since the recommendations in the report are against the low-fat diet guidelines by US and UK, the headlines state the low-fat diet as “disastrous” or the NOF diet advice “extremely dangerous”. Some even claims that low-fat diet is the main cause of the obesity epidemic in the US by showing that obesity prevalence shot up after the low-fat diet published in the 1977. I wonder if these people serious believe what they are talking about or they just want to hit the headlines and become famous.

Let’s be rational. How many people actually follow the guidelines? Do the guidelines have any effect on people’s eating behavior? I will use the color wheels from What the world eats, that I wrote about in my previous post What the World Eats from 1961 to 2011 to illustrate this.

 

Here are two color wheels showing the US daily calories consumption in year 1976 and 1978, before and after the low-fat guidelines were published.

US 1976 1978

Do you see any difference? Do people follow the guidelines and eat less fat and more carbs? Not at all. Well maybe it takes some times to see the changes. So let’s look at the wheel for year 2011.

US 2011

Percentage of each type of food consumed is largely the same. There isn’t any significant increase in carbs or decrease in fat. What’s more, people are consuming 500 cal more every day in 2011. What does that means? Very obvious, people do not follow the diet guidelines. It is extremely difficult to change people’s diet. Even those diet interventions with long term intensive follow up and monitoring, hardly change people’s eating behavior. Every guideline advises to limit sugary drinks. How many people actually listen? If the guidelines can have such huge impact, so huge as to cause the obesity epidemic, the government doesn’t need to spend millions on diet interventions any more. If people do follow the diet advice, limiting their daily calories intake within the recommended range, there will not be so many obese people around the world. How can we term it as “disastrous” and blame it for causing obesity when it simply doesn’t have any impact on people’s diet? 

I agree that the low-fat diet has its limitations. But that’s the case with all kinds of diet advice. Diet advice cannot be perfect because the current available evidences are not able to tell us every single component of our diet is good or bad for our health. The reason being it is almost impossible to carry out randomized trials on a single diet component. Even for trials comparing two types of diets, low-fat vs high-fat for example, it is impossible to make sure people actually follow the assigned diet in the trial.

The main difference between the low-fat diet and NOF diet advice is on saturated fat. Low-fat diet recommends limited intake of saturated fat while NOF report argues saturated fat is not harmful. It is meaningless to argue who is right or wrong when the evidences are not strong enough to support either side. Meanwhile, let’s play safe and eat saturated fat at moderation.