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dieting is no match for agribusiness

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I wrote a few weeks ago about a long-term study that supposedly calls into question the value of low-fat diets for women's health the Women's Health Initiative. Of course, the media coverage has glossed over some of the more significant details of the study, like how few of the women on the "low-fat" diet succeeded in meeting the target percentage of calories from fat -- overall, they didn't consume much less fat than the control group (for a more nuanced report of the results, you can read NIH's press release). Last week, NPR seemed to be backtracking a little, covering the study in somewhat more depth and addressing the media's role in oversimplifying the findings. Of course, they didn't really admit their own role in this, or how the various media outlets participated in creating a story by promoting a polarized view of the study's results.

But what's more, this study touches on the disparity between medically accepted ideals of healthy eating and actual food practices. Food guidelines and nutritional advice are worthless unless people can actually implement them in their lives. And what we eat comes down to how we eat -- preparing vs. buying meals, grocery shopping vs. going out, and what's available for purchase in the first place. Food consumption can not be divorced from food production -- and distribution. And food production in the US is still dominated by agribusiness and mass production, in which hardiness, shelf-life, and appearance trump nutritional quality or taste.

I think this issue becomes painfully evident when you consider the USDA's emphasis on eating more fruits and vegetables. Whenever I stop by a large supermarket, I'm reminded of just how poor the quality of most mass produce is. Why would I want to eat more wan, mealy, waxy apples or translucent, tasteless lettuce? It's much easier to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet when you can afford to shop at somewhere crunchy like San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery, or live in an area with farmer's markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture: small, organic farms that sell shares to members). Even when it comes to processed foods like peanut butter, most of what's available in big supermarket chains contains added trans fat, salt and sugar -- even if cost weren't an issue, it's still difficult for most people to purchase less refined products.

Changing diet requires changing how people consume food -- you can't reduce how much processed food you eat unless you start investing more time in preparing meals for yourself. But at the same time, no amount of personal responsibility can substitute for having access to appealing, fresh, flavorful ingredients. Unfortunately, it's not possible with our current food production system to offer local, seasonal foods in all regions and across all income levels. Which means, practically, that diets are not going to change, no matter how many gimmicky salad options MacDonald's tries to sell to rescue its Supersized image. While it seems unlikely that CSAs alone represent a solution at thes national level, I think it is necessary to reconsider how we produce and distribute food if we want to address how we consume it.

back to blogging/the media and the message

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I've been away from here for a bit, thanks to the holidays and other demands on my time in the past few months. Hopefully, I'm back now, and will be able to continue writing regularly! Among other topics, I was amused the other day by NPR's coverage of a recent study suggesting that low-fat diets don't lower the risk of heart disease and other health problems.

One commentator suggested that consumers (when did we become consumers?) may be confused by the results of this study, given how long the AMA and other medical organizations have been promoting low-fat, high fiber diets to prevent disease. If you actually read any of the many articles online the study, of course, it wasn't all that confusing in the least -- the researchers tracked a large group of women over a number of years, noting total fat intake but not distinguishing between different kinds of fat. Moreover, most of the participants on the "low-fat" diet didn't succeed in lowering their percentage of calories from fat to the target level, so their diets were only slightly lower in fat than the control group. Ultimately, the study concludes that lowering fat in general may not have much of an impact on longterm health, but had little to say on the advantages of a diet low in saturated fat and higher in vegetable oils.

Suffice to say, of course the public finds the study confusing -- reporters all over the country proclaimed "low fat diets have no impact on disease!" and then go on to explain how actually the study is more complicated than that. As far as I can tell, the researchers didn't find the results nearly as surprising as the news outlets, who are selling the story based on its supposed divergence from mainstream medical thought. It's the media creating the story -- and the confusion! So it seems a little ironic for anyone in the media to wonder why the public might be confused. Thanks, NPR!

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