Slow Food Columbus

Junk Food, Natural Food, and Health

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Fat Ronald McdonaldDavid H. Freedman’s Atlantic article, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” will surely be making the rounds in sustainable-food circles, so it probably deserves a few comments. The article takes Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and their devotees to task for ignoring the health potential of fast food and overstating the health benefits of natural foods.

The article does score a few points, and they’re worth highlighting. It points out that natural foods are not always healthier than processed foods, and that’s clearly true: as Freedman illustrates repeatedly, it’s possible to make a disastrously unhealthy meal out of nothing but natural, unprocessed ingredients. It also points out that fast-food chains like McDonald’s are taking steps toward producing healthier offerings and that those offerings have the potential to make a real difference in the obesity crisis. Also true. To the extent that commentators ignore or marginalize these points, we risk coming across as the unreasonable, out-of-touch fanatics that Freedman chastises.

That said, I doubt very many people truly believe that the unprocessed status of natural foods play a larger role in the prevention of obesity than the lower number of calories that they typically contain. I do often see arguments for other health benefits, including those associated with the consumption of more vitamins, fiber, and so on, as well as the absence of a laundry list of processed-food health hazards. But most sensible people will concede that eating too much sustainably-produced ice cream will make you every bit as fat as eating too much of the mass-produced, hyperprocessed stuff will.

Aside from soundly flogging that particular straw man, what does the article accomplish? In short, an impressive amount of misdirection. Freedman praises McDonald’s for its yogurt parfait, its Egg White McMuffin Deluxe, and for other newer, healthier products while entirely ignoring the rest of their obesogenic menu. (Nor are fast food chains only moving toward healthier options: Wendy’s jawdropping Baconator Triple, with 1,330 calories, was introduced in 2007.) He calls out Mark Bittman for an unhealthy corn-and-bacon sauté without ever mentioning the New York Times columnist’s other, healthier recipes or his thoughtful “Meatless Monday” campaign. He repeatedly cites the inaccessibility of sustainable food to lower-income consumers without really exploring it—as Siobhan Phillips did, for example, in “Can We Afford to Eat Ethically?” (Salon)—or addressing the fact that fast food is highly subsidized by American taxpayers. He focuses very specifically on the implications of food for obesity, not overall health, blithely ignoring the other health hazards—rBGH, brominated vegetable oil, arsenic(!!)—that are associated with processed food. And when it comes to the bigger picture, he devotes a scant paragraph to the disastrous environmental impact of Big Food:

For the purposes of this article, let’s simply stipulate that wholesome foods are environmentally superior. But let’s also agree that when it comes to prioritizing among food-related public-policy goals, we are likely to save and improve many more lives by focusing on cutting obesity—through any available means—than by trying to convert all of industrial agriculture into a vast constellation of small organic farms.

If you hadn’t realized that this was an either-or proposition, that’s because it’s not. There would be a tension between these two things if sustainable food really were systematically worse for you than fast food—but on the whole, that’s a laughable proposition.

What’s my basis for this conclusion? It’s pretty simple, really. Begin with the assumption that you want to follow current best practices for losing weight and keeping it off—that is, a diet that’s high in vegetables and lean proteins and low in simple carbs, with a modest amount of fat. Then ask yourself how easy or difficult it would be to follow that diet in McDonald’s, as compared to Whole Foods. There’s simply no comparison: Whole Foods’ incredible selection of fresh vegetables and lean meats, not to mention the “more than 21 types of tofu, 62 bins of organic grains and legumes, and 42 different salad greens” that Freedman cites, are the basis for an incredible variety of healthy meals that will help you lose weight. And contrary to Freedman’s claims, at least some of those salad greens will fit into just about any budget. At McDonald’s, you’ll get tired of yogurt parfait and egg-white muffins pretty quickly.

How could someone possibly champion fast food in the fight against obesity, using evidence and logic that are so narrow and skewed? It’s difficult to conclude that the answer is anything other than bias or incompetence. Given the amount of hard work that went into the piece and Freedman’s career as a self-styled contrarian, I suspect he’s simply trying to make the best case he can for an unconventional point of view. But let’s be clear: That is a form of bias. It involves pointing out the best of the fast-food world and the worst of the sustainable-food world. That’s no way to compare the two objectively and systematically.