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.