Telling Americans To ‘Eat Better’ Doesn’t Work. We Must Make Healthier Food
Diet-related chronic disease is the perennial number one killer in the United States, responsible for more deaths than Covid-19 even at the pandemic’s peak. Yet we cannot manage to define this as a “crisis”. In fact, our response is lame: for decades we’ve been telling people to “eat better”, a strategy that hasn’t worked, and never will.
It cannot, as long as the majority of calories we produce are unhealthy. It is the availability of and access to types of food that determines our diets, and those, in turn, are factors of agricultural policy. For a healthy population, we must mandate or at least incentivize growing real food for nutrition, not cheap meat and corn and soya beans for junk food.
As omnivores, humans have choices, but most choices available to Americans are bad ones. Literally: 60% of the calories in the food supply are in the form of ultra-processed foods (UPFs, or junk food), which are the primary cause of diet-related diseases. That means almost no one can make a “good” choice every time, and many of us can barely make good choices ever.
And it’s not enough to say “eat plant-based”, because most junk food is in fact made from plants; the future of food, especially when you add environmental factors, is plant-centric but minimally processed – plants in close to their natural form, in diets that resemble those eaten traditionally by almost everyone in the world until the 20th century. To make that happen, we must address the functioning of the entire food system.
Government mandates around public health, environmental protection and even literacy can yield desirable results: laws or regulations around seat belts, tobacco, light bulbs, recycling, public education, have all improved public welfare. Yet no such efforts have been made in diet, where the mantra of “behavior change” stands in for good policy.
Junk food and meat are both damaging, but must be considered separately: The case for reducing the consumption of junk food rests largely on the facts that UPFs dominate the calorie supply of industrialized nations, and that diet-related diseases (diabetes, heart disease, a dozen cancers) kill around 600,000 Americans per year. (By contrast, at current rates, Covid-19 will kill 100,000 people in the US next year.) Increasingly, studies show that it isn’t simply “sugar” or “inflammation” or “saturated fat” that causes these diseases, but rather a still-to-be-determined combination of factors inherent in UPFs.
We can reduce the consumption of junk food quickly with better labeling laws, taxes on the most egregious offenders (especially sugar-sweetened beverages) and limits on selling junk food on government property and to minors. All of these are being explored in various municipalities in the US and even countries abroad.
While eating meat itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy, producing 10 billion animals per year – in the US alone – for consumption has devastating effects on our health and environment. Negative effects abound: astronomical land and resource use, greenhouse gas generation, antibiotic exposure and resistance and the environmental damage and carcinogenic impact of factory farms themselves. Unprocessed food from the plant kingdom is less expensive, less damaging and in countless ways healthier than industrially produced meat.
Although few are in favor of outlawing meat, it’s important to move beyond a fetishization of “animal protein” as critical to human health (it is not), and to acknowledge that meat consumption in industrial nations must be reduced. We can begin doing 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 moves here include restricting the barely regulated use of antibiotics in animal production; reducing monopolistic practices and supporting small farms, as well as local and regional production and consumption; limiting the (currently almost unregulated) emissions produced by factory farms; and defining and penalizing the kind of animal cruelty accepted as “routine” in factory farms.
Of course, meat production also would be curbed by encouraging the growing and consumption of what the US department of agriculture calls (without irony) “specialty products” – fruits and vegetables. The more land that produces crops other than corn and soya beans (mostly used for producing UPFs and animal feed), the less meat and junk we’ll eat. This could be accomplished first by emphasizing subsidies to encourage the growing and sale of real foods, and by making sure that those food programs receiving federal dollars promote truly plant-forward eating.
Rectifying the gross historic injustices in US land distribution, which has historically disadvantaged or shut out farmers of color, women and queer farmers, and encouraging new farmers to grow good food well, is also a critical step.
None of this is, as critics argue, a return to more primitive methods of farming, but a recognition that a blend of modern technology and good policy would support farming that serves the worlds’ citizens, not its corporations.
The “nudges” and behavioral incentives so popular with economists a decade ago are largely impotent. What would work are rules around production and consumption, and the sooner we begin to implement these, the sooner we will address the critical food-related issues of public well-being.
Mark Bittman is on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the author of Animal, Vegetable, Junk