Editorial: The politics of diets and food

Editorial: The politics of diets and food

By Jeff Havens, Staff Writer

By Jeff Havens

Staff Writer

During the holidays, American’s thoughts turn to food, among other things. The choices we make—in not only how much we eat but what we eat—have huge implications on how we affect ourselves, our families, the environment and the rest of the world’s inhabitants. Therefore, choosing your foods wisely is very important.


By and large, Americans are fat. How often have we all heard in the media and from healthcare professionals about the problems of the overweight and obese. The U.S. Surgeon General’s office conducted a study last year that concluded 61 percent of adult Americans and 14 percent of adolescents are overweight. Most of these percentage increases have been within the past 20 years.

While some critics have charged that the Surgeon General’s study should not have used body mass index to define overweight and obesity, those arguments are weak when applied to the whole of our society. The Surgeon General’s study may serve as evidence for a recent lawsuit filed against McDonald’s for health problems related to its food, which is predominately high in fat and calories.

Americans are fat for many reasons. However, it basically comes down to people consuming more calories than they need to live. How we acquire those calories is another issue. Lately, many media stories and conversations are focused on diets, specifically, the Atkins diet and the U.S. government’s “food pyramid.”

The Atkins Diet

Since the 1970s, Dr. Robert Atkins has been advocating a high fat, low-carbohydrate, animal-based diet for people to lose weight. Two weeks ago, Duke University researchers presented evidence that people on Atkins’ diet lost more weight and lowered blood cholesterol levels better than those on a low-fat, low-protein, plant-based diet, which is advocated by the government and American Heart Association.

However, questions remain about the long-term effects of a high-fat, animal-based diet and the study itself. More importantly, most of the people who started the Duke study could not stay on the Atkins Diet and dropped out. This fact speaks to the larger issue, which is that humans’ diets throughout history have changed to meet nutritional needs.

Food and evolution

The December 2002 issue of Scientific American describes human evolution and its relationship to food. The article indicates that modern day humans, when at rest, spend 20 to 25 percent of their energy on meeting the brain’s needs.

The advent of cooking not only allowed for food to be more easily chewed, it also provided more calories to be available from plant foods, which increased the quality of the human diet. The article details the diets of six groups of people; each group represents an international geographic region. Each of the six groups’ calories per day, body mass index, percent of energy derived from plant and animal foods and total blood cholesterol levels are given. Some groups eat mostly animal products, others mostly plants.

The article concludes that humans have used a wide variety of strategies to meet dietary needs. “We have evolved to be flexible eaters. The health concerns of the industrial world, where calorie packed foods are readily available, stem not from deviations from a specific diet but from an imbalance between the energy we consume and the energy we expend.”

Food pyramid

Yes, Americans consume too much. To what may we attribute such gains in fat over the past 10 to 20 years? The answer is not clear. Some have pointed to the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of all Americans, including children and adolescents. Others suggest that the government itself is partly responsible for the rise in fat Americans because of The Food Guide Pyramid.

In 1992, the government issued its recommendations for the types and amounts of food Americans should eat on a daily basis. The pyramid recommends numerous servings of carbohydrates and smaller amounts of fat and protein. These guidelines have not changed.

Two weeks ago, a Harvard School of Public Health study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition calls into question the relevance of the government’s pyramid. The authors of the study said that the pyramid assumes that only fat calories make people fat. However, the reality is that too many calories from whatever source make people fat.

Instead, the study recommends the Harvard diet, which calls for fewer carbohydrates and more fat, but not animal-derived fat like in the Atkins’ diet, but plant-based fats from foods such as nuts and vegetable oils. The study found that those who ate the Harvard diet had a significantly reduced risk for major chronic disease.

Author of the study, Walter Willet, said he thought a whole industry has been built on low-fat foods that enabled people to eat fat-free foods, such as ice cream and brownies, without feeling guilty. Willet believes that this fat-free industry contributed to Americans’ rise in fatness and obesity.


In 1977, the words “eat less” were part of America’s official Dietary Guidelines. However, those words were removed from the guidelines after congressional hearings on food, in which food advocacy groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Association testified, according to the latest issue of Adbusters. Adbusters is a non-profit agency and journal that is published in three languages, with its headquarters in Canada.

The article’s accompanying figures suggest that corporate food giants, such as Con Agra, Iowa Beef Packers, Tyson, Du Pont, Philip Morris and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) were partly responsible for constructing the 1992 government Food Guide Pyramid.

Could corporate giants, such as ADM have pressured government officials to set the recommended number of servings in the pyramid? Which may be partly responsible for our obesity and diabetes epidemic.


Illinois-based ADM applies the latest technology to agriculture and rakes in billions in profits in the process. They also stand to gain substantially by shifting our energy demands from fossil fuels to plant-based fuels, such as corn-based ethanol. As ADM’s Web site reads, “These and many other products are just the beginning of the nature of what’s to come from ADM.” If ADM’s recent past is an indication of the future, it is indeed “just the beginning.”

In the 1990s, the FBI recorded more than 250 hours of audio and video tapes in which extremely wealthy ADM and Japanese executives casually divided world markets, called customers “the enemy,” and scoffed at the notion of competitive free trade.

The tapes document an international criminal price-fixing conspiracy in the feed additives market. Specifically, ADM and its international competitors met to fix the world wide price of an amino acid known as lysine—a building block for proteins. Lysine is used as a feed additive to fatten hogs and chickens.

The scheme artificially propped up world wide prices of lysine, which cheated chicken growers such as Tyson Foods, drove up the costs of items such as Chicken McNuggets, and helped run small farmers out of business. The end result was that the ADM informant, Mark Whitacre, who was responsible for helping the FBI obtain the tapes, was imprisoned for embezzling $9 million from ADM. Other ADM executives were also sentenced, and the company was fined and paid $100 million for price-fixing.

Read the whole story in The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald or listen to it on the Web at National Public Radio’s weekly show, This American Life. The show is titled “The Fix Is In.”

While Americans are busy eating, farmers produce more food than Americans can consume, and some giant corporations scheme to gouge the public. In the meantime, people in the developing world starve.


According to a 1993 article in Scientific American, countries that have no democracy, combined with a lack of free press, have unequal food distribution that result in modern-day famines.

While we are often shown images of starving and diseased people in developing nations on television that ask for our donations, we have not removed this scourge from the planet because we have failed to address the underlying issues that bring forth famine, suggested the article.

Therefore, if we are to adequately feed the approximately one out of every six humans who are dying of starvation and keep the planet clean and safe for generations to come, we must work toward encouraging democracies, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and sustainable agricultural practices.

How would you have for achieve these goals? Send your suggested to The Rock River Times, as letters to the editor. We would be glad to publish them. Happy Holidays.

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