Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Insatiable American Appetite

When we think about moving toward a more sustainable food system, we are often focused on changing the ‘food industrial complex’ that delivers us our food. We’re aware that our food has become more processed and less nutritious, but how much have we been altered because of the changes made to what we’re now consuming?

So, we’re eating an entirely new kind of food that is unprecedented in human history, basically unrecognizable to people even 50 years ago. And a whole new set of norms has evolved around that food, e.g. it’s now socially acceptable to never cook for yourself. What effects has this new food culture had on us? How has this relatively recent shift affected our predilections and attitudes? Dr. David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner and author of "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite", addresses some of these issues in his interview with Amy Goodman and Anjali Kamat of Democracy Now. The interview is long, but definitely worth watching/listening.

We know that our bodies are physically affected (obesity, heart disease, etc.) by our unhealthy food intake, but Kessler believes that our brains are changing on a neurological level in response to the composition of our increasingly processed diet. The culprit is the unholy trinity of sugar, salt, and fat, and their endless permutations prevalent on our shelves, care of the food industry. Corporations might not know exactly which biological buttons they are pushing, but the proof is in the pudding, quite literally, with our expanding waistlines and their profits to prove it. In the interview, Kessler discusses how he and his colleagues have found evidence that repeated exposure to this combo can actually rewire our neural pathways. He is particularly troubled by the implications of these studies for America’s youth, who are starting down this path even earlier.

Another interesting point he raises is how our larger culture has come to condone our increasingly unhealthy eating behaviors: eating between meals, food as entertainment, etc. Our attitudes and choices are highly influenced by the prevailing social norms, and Kessler holds that responses towards food are no different. However, he advocates for change and thinks we are capable of it. He brings up an interesting parallel to cigarettes, and describes how people’s perception of smoking shifted over several decades, from one of collective desire to collective distaste.

Kessler’s interview made me recognize that our return to more sustainable food practices is not just about people embracing seasonality, locality, etc. It will also require the unlearning of many of the new behaviors and beliefs about food that have become highly integrated into American life, like huge portion sizes, continuous snacking, etc. I think it is important for us to explore how these recently evolved tendencies can be addressed as we advocate for sustainability. How difficult is it to resist that Twinkie when our own brain and our culture at large are coyly suggesting, “How about two?”

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