January is poverty awareness month. This year, many families are experiencing poverty and must rely on food banks and federal food assistance, some for the first time ever. The stress of financial uncertainty takes a toll on a person’s health and many Americans struggle to manage conditions like high blood pressure and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that often kills.
Last week, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey caused a bit of a firestorm on the issue of nutrition and health when he said, “Americans won’t need health care if they just eat right.”
While clearly well meaning, Mackey was criticized for the statement, perhaps because he runs one of the most expensive grocery stores in America. Yet, Mackey raises the important point that lousy eating is indeed part of why Americans have persistent problems with obesity and obesity-related diseases.
There are vast disagreements about what constitutes healthy eating. Many food organizations, celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and talk show hosts like to push the idea that eating right means eating expensive. According to these rules, shopping at posh grocery stores, with wine bars, sushi counters, and loads of expensive organic, non-GMO, free trade, humanely caught, free range food is the way to go if you want to be truly healthy.
Yet, this message goes beyond mere snobbery. Some even suggest consumers are doing great harm to themselves by eating less expensive, non-organic food and promote the idea that organic food is superior because it is free of pesticides (not true), that it’s healthier (not true), and that it’s better for the environment (again, not true).
This consumer guilt-tripping and total indifference to American’ struggles sums up the elitist food philosophy. Aspirational food shopping is as normal as aspirational shoe shopping these days and it has taken hold among even the poorest consumers.
This misinformation comes at a high cost—to consumer health. A study by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research showed fear-based food marketing—like telling people that canned food is bad or that they should only buy organic food and milk—is creating so much anxiety about affordable food that poor consumers are actually choosing to pass on these healthier items. Another, very similar, peer reviewed study conducted by John Hopkins University, found consumers often face information overload and conflicting messages about fresh produce, which can drive them away from affordable and healthier food choices.
Sadly, none of this matters to those vested in the pseudo-religion surrounding organic food. Peddlers of high-end organics ignore science and sound health advice in service of a higher cause.
Adding to the confusion is the mixed messages on obesity—a cause recently taken up by editors of Cosmopolitan magazine. They deserve some credit though. It is no minor feat to shift years of messaging that anorexia is beautiful to the equally dangerous message that morbid obesity is both beautiful, healthy, and sexy (and if men don’t agree, they’re sexist!)
Yet, if you’ve ever known a truly morbidly obese person and have seen their physical limitations, you’d know the cruel folly of Cosmopolitan’s message. Healthy eating and treating overweight and obese people kindly are certainly worthy goals. But lying to the American public about the dangers of obesity and promoting an expensive organic-only food orthodoxy about food won’t help people improve their lives or diets.
This month, focus on more important issues, like the fact that many Americans are facing poverty and could use some help getting the nutrients they need. Give to your local food banks and food drives (make sure to check for expiration dates on food to be donated) and encourage people to ignore nonsense food trends that do far more harm than good.