The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

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CAN JUNK FOOD END OBESITY?

In the July/August cover story, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” David H. Freedman criticized what he called the “wholesome-food movement” and two of its main proponents, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, for demonizing processed foods. Could embracing McDonald’s, he wondered, make us all healthier?

As a veteran of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit, I completely agree with David Freedman’s core assertion. Only companies such as McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble have the scale, science, and marketing resources to have a significant positive effect on the average American’s diet. However, I would argue that these companies have not yet realized the huge financial stake in doing so. As Freedman points out, the typical modern diet shortens life spans and will cost Americans alive today a collective 1 billion years of life. I would ask the CFOs: How many Diet Pepsis, Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwiches, or Egg White Delight McMuffins could be consumed over all those years? The concept of winning customers for life might take on a whole new meaning.

Mark Nassutti
Vashon, Wash.

Working at the crossroads of public health, medicine, and nutrition, with a focus on dietary approaches to combatting chronic disease, I took great interest in this article. From the macro- and microeconomic perspectives, prodding “Big Food to intensify and speed up its efforts to cut fat and problem carbs in its offerings” appears to make good sense. That said, I think it is essential, and possible, for the approach espoused by Freedman to work in tandem with the approach of the Pollanites and Bittmanites.

Implicit in Freedman’s thesis is the fact that corner stores in poor urban areas will still have only a few apples and bananas behind the plexiglass shield at the cashier’s counter, while Corporate America addresses the needs of the urban poor, who will get a healthier tranche of food (or foodlike substances) when they step up to the fast-food counter. The leaders of Big Food are making dietary adjustments because (as Freedman notes) they see the metaphorical dollar signs written on the wall. Although their motives revolve around survival and profit, they could benefit the great majority of the populace that does not shop at high-end grocery stores.

Should Corporate America incrementally improve the health of a large segment of the population while the Pollanites and Bittmanites impact an additional, but far smaller, segment? Yes. The current obesity epidemic is too massive a threat to our nation to fight over which solution is better.

Jed William Fahey, Sc.D.
Baltimore, Md.

Freedman ignores altogether The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book that originally fomented Michael Pollan’s attitudes about food and set in motion the eventual adoption of these attitudes by large masses of the public. Whereas The Omnivore’s Dilemma highlighted the perspective that production is a key variable in the problem of food, Freedman devotes only one paragraph of his article to this variable, dismissing as a lost cause the environmental and health problems associated with industrial farming. To posit that “there is no hard evidence to back any health-risk claims about processed food,” while ignoring the health risks of pesticide and antibiotic use that result from the industrial production of food, is disingenuous at best.

Will Keats-Osborn
Vancouver, British Columbia

I found David Freedman’s various explanations for the obesity epidemic to be appalling and specious. Does he really think that poor people are obese because they’re too dumb to eat well and can’t afford to anyway?

When I was living below the poverty line for three-plus years, I shopped at the local supermarket and bought plain vegetables, dry beans, whole grains, and a little bit of meat. I could eat extremely well on less than $10 a day for all three meals—cheaper than McDonald’s! Despite Mr. Freedman’s rhetoric, real healthy food is cheaper than processed food, especially if you buy the bare ingredients and cook it yourself. Anyone can do this.

The fact is, Americans are fat because nobody wants to hold them accountable for the real issue: personal responsibility. It takes discipline to exercise, cook healthy food, and avoid the temptations that lead to obesity. A low-fat Big Mac isn’t the solution. Saying no to processed food is—no matter how healthy it purports to be.

Ben Garland
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Freedman operates under the mistaken premise that our food system’s only major consequence is a rise in obesity, ignoring other pesky health issues like our population’s growing resistance to medication, early-onset puberty, and cancer; the serious environmental impacts of an industrialized food system (and its direct effect on our health); as well as the basic moral failings of factory farming (to put it lightly). He also uses a series of misinterpretations, false comparisons, “rough calculations,” approximations, and at least one “not exactly scientific study” to peddle the best PR Big Food has gotten since it had the Big Mac–scarfing Bill Clinton in the White House …

What Pollan advocates is not more access to Whole Foods, but more access to whole foods, in the form of farmers’ markets, [community-supported agriculture], and artisanal food products. Are these foods more expensive? Often they are, but not always … Freedman also ignores our country’s system of providing subsidies for commodity crops like corn, which keeps the prices of processed foods (almost always corn-based) artificially low, making kale and other healthy foods look expensive only by comparison.

Deena Shanker
Excerpt from a Salon article

Does Freedman not know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats? He compares the amount of fat in a Big Mac beef patty with the amount in a vegan salad. One contains saturated fats, which raise LDL (bad) cholesterol; the other has polyunsaturated fats beneficial to heart health. Similarly, Freedman shows no awareness that carbohydrates in combination with fiber are digested differently from refined carbohydrates. He suggests that an apple is less healthy than a fruit parfait because the total sugar content is higher in the apple. But, while the apple may have more sugar, it also has fiber, which the parfait lacks. Sugars and refined carbohydrates can prompt an insulin rush, leading to fat storage and damaged arteries. Fiber slows the absorption of sugars and contributes to a satiated feeling, thus decreasing the likelihood of overeating.

Pamela E. Stewart
Jasper, Ark.

Freedman’s skepticism can be pick-and-choosy. He doesn’t think that buying food at Trader Joe’s will make us thinner, or that a farmers’ market can transform behavior in a whole community, or that cutting subsidies for corn will reverse America’s long-standing gut inflation. These arguments he discards for lack of evidence—but when it comes to slimming down the masses with junk-food engineering, Freedman’s fine to cross his fingers and hope it all works out …

Freedman can’t provide a speck of evidence that reflexive shaming from the Pollanites has slowed the pace of junk-food innovation. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe they’re among its leading inspirations. When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi announced in 2010 that her company would cut the average amount of added sugar per serving of its products by one-quarter in the next few years, she was responding to a shifting landscape of consumption and a philosophy of eating that was filtering down from foodies to everyone else.

Daniel Engber
Excerpt from a Slate article

David H. Freedman replies:

Would Deena Shanker contend that the costs of the litany of non-obesity health problems that she claims (with little scientific backing, by the way) are addressed by wholesome foods together approach 1 billion years of lost life in the U.S. alone, as obesity does?

Contrary to Jed Fahey’s claim, I don’t oppose eating like a Pollanite—I state in the article that I mostly eat like one myself, and encourage all those who are willing and able to follow suit, rich and poor. My complaint is that Pollanites refuse to make room for healthier processed food, while offering no plan for making unprocessed food cheap and convenient for 100 million more people, and for getting them to drop junk food for it.

Daniel Engber doubts that cutting fat, problem carbs, and calories in junk food would help, a good indicator of his grasp of obesity science. My article does offer evidence that Pollanites impede progress in healthier fast food, in the form of a quote from the top menu maker at McDonald’s to that effect. Does he doubt that I could provide much more? Bizarrely, while sneering at Big Food’s shift toward healthier fare, Engber tries to give his movement credit for it. I guess he agrees after all that it’s a worthwhile goal, though credit goes not to Pollanites, who have sworn to hate Big Food no matter what it does, but to scientists, policy makers, and consumers.

As for Pamela Stewart, I address the benefits of fiber directly in the article, but not every food need be super healthy in every way. I’m fully aware that there are different types of dietary fats, but these differences matter little for weight control. As with all important health and diet issues, consult your doctor, not a journalist.

HOW LONG CAN YOU WAIT TO HAVE A BABY?

Longer than you think—so said Jean M. Twenge in her July/August feature. The psychology professor revealed that the commonly touted fertility statistics that induce anxiety in so many women are out-of-date and overwrought.

Thank you very much for stopping the holy reign of terror against successful women in their late 20s and early 30s that has been The Atlantic for the past few years, and for giving us some freaking hope for a change.

Rachel Ringel
Minneapolis, Minn.

It’s wonderful news that the statistics about fertility decline have potentially been exaggerated. Then perhaps we can push back against attitudes that women are “waiting too long” because they’re deluded or selfish or career-obsessed …

Most women time their children based on a host of factors—economic stability and romantic stability among them. We can’t all snap our fingers and have a good marriage and a stable career in our 20s because that’s the “optimal” age to have children … It’s good to hear that our bodies will cooperate with the way society has changed.

Jessica Grose
Excerpt from a Slate article

I was startled by this upending of “facts” I’d been hearing for years, and dismayed that it took so long for someone to make this knowledge public. Popular writing about fertility may have been lazy, and some medical authorities appear to have used questionable numbers in attempts to dumb down reproduction-related information for the public, but there was no conspiracy to hide the unreliability of the original data. Twenge, a psychology researcher, simply looked it up in the relevant medical databases. But after my initial surprise, I felt conflicted.

What I was supposed to feel, I think, was that I’d been granted a reprieve … And yet, I’m not sure what to do with this information. I imagine that mid-to-late-30s women who are currently in a position to have children but who had put it off due to financial or logistic concerns might be thrilled to find that their choices are not as limited as they feared. But for single women (who do not want to be single mothers) the happiness of “My eggs are still good!” segues quickly into “Four more years to find a man!” The inward pressure and outward judgment were already there, but introducing that second chance—which is really a last chance—does nothing to quell them and perhaps even makes them worse.

The reality is that there’s nothing I can do now, knowing I have a few more good years, that I couldn’t have done before this article came out … And it can be difficult for people who prefer to take action to remember that good science and thorough research, while laudable and indeed necessary, can’t always make life predictable on an individual basis … No matter how momentarily panic-inducing or uplifting they may be, [bursts of chatter about fertility] soon pale beside the fact that what we almost superstitiously call “choices” are usually simply strokes of luck.

Johnna Kaplan
Excerpt from a Jewish Daily Forward blog post

I have mixed feelings about the Atlantic article. On the one hand, I am all in favor of accurate fertility statistics … I want every doctor, scientist, and researcher to read these statistics and stop referring to any woman over 35 as of “advanced maternal age.”

On the other hand, because of my history [of miscarriages after age 40], I am afraid Dr. Twenge is giving women the rope with which to hang themselves. She raises the age to panic about having babies by four years, advising women to have children before 40.

But I don’t want women to be like me, to think they have an endless amount of time to be a mother, only to discover problems—problems that take time to solve.

Amy Klein
Excerpt from a New York Times blog post

My husband and I had the “Do we or don’t we have kids?” talk for so long that I was worried we’d missed our chance. Yet here I sit, pregnant with my first child, information I just found out about an hour ago. I will be 43 when I give birth, and I am terrified. But evidently the opportunity had not passed.

Katrina Mojzesz
South Royalton, Vt.

The Data-Driven City

In “You’ll Never Throw Up in This Town Again” (July/August), Emily Badger wrote about how San Francisco is working with the review site Yelp to “translate the raw minutia of municipal restaurant inspections into something more comprehensible.” The mayor of the nation’s capital wrote in to describe how Washington, D.C., has already harnessed social-media data to improve public agencies’ performance.

As the mayor of a city of more than 630,000 people, whose responsibilities include working with public-health officials, I enjoyed reading this article. Emily Badger posited that it would be great if local governments would actually start listening to residents via social media. Well, the good news is that one already is—and it’s right in The Atlantic’s backyard: Washington, D.C.

Through our Grade.DC.gov program, the District of Columbia is using innovative technology to sniff out poor performance in 15 of our agencies that interface most directly and regularly with the public. Partnering with a local tech firm, we harvest social-media data on agencies such as the Department of Health, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Metropolitan Police Department to improve customer service and service delivery. The system extracts open-source data from sites like Twitter, Facebook, and yes, even Yelp. We use this data to publicly grade the agencies each month—issuing letter grades not dissimilar to the restaurant grades that Ms. Badger mentions within the article.

Vincent C. Gray
Mayor of the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C.

OF NO PARTY OR CLIQUE

An observant reader notices an omission from recent issues.

May I inquire, please, as to the absence, in recent issues of your publication, of your reassuring statement that you ascribe to no particular bias or clique? I have often mentioned your statement as the reason my wife and I read just about every page of your publication—and reread some.

William Shanahan
Leesburg, Va.

The editors reply:

Check out this month’s Table of Contents.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/10/the-conversation/309465/