Sunday, April 14, 2013

Food Deserts: The Problem isn't just McDonalds

The USDA believes that food deserts could be causing obesity and diet-related diseases. (1) If you are unfamiliar with the term "food desert," it's any location where access to affordable healthy foods (which is defined by the USDA as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk) is limited. Specifically, there are no traditional supermarkets or grocery stores within 10 miles of a given location. (2)

If this lack of access to a grocery store wasn't bad enough, the USDA argues, corner stores and fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut encourage poorer individuals to eat less healthy foods just to save a buck. These food deserts, and the fast food joints that infest them, are exacerbating our current epidemic of obesity by preventing poor people from eating healthy foods, or so we are told.

The fact is that if you don't have a lot of money, you will tend to buy the cheapest food items. Generally, overly-processed foods are cheaper than healthy foods no matter where you get your food. (3)

As for the fast food restaurants, while these establishments are generally selling excessively processed, nutrient-devoid, taste enhanced, near-meat foods, the health problems associated with food deserts (e.g., obesity, diabetes, heart disease) go well beyond cheap chicken nuggets, Big Macs, bean burritos, pepperoni pizza, and giant cups of soda. If the USDA is going to poo-poo all over fast food restaurants, then they have to also be critical of the supposed oasis of healthy eating: The grocery store. While the outside of a grocery store is filled with the stuff generally recognized as healthy (produce, meat, dairy), the center aisles are completely full of junk (see the illustration below by Chris Masterjohn). These highly-processed convenience foods represent a food dessert too.

All convenience foods are a symptom of the modern Western diet and lifestyle, where preference is given to cost, speed, and taste instead of more slowly prepared, healthful, nutrient-dense foods.

There is a much simpler answer to our current health problems: Obesity (like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes) started to become prevalent as we transitioned from eating nutritious, traditionally-prepared foods to more industrially-processed and shelf-able foods. (4) Specifically, the problem is our excessive intake of:
  • Grains and legumes, which contain anti-nutrients and toxins that humans haven't fully evolved to deal with. Lately, modern wheat has been linked to all kinds of diseases (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, obesity, rickets), (4,5) and unfermented soy seems to have evolved an arsenal of toxins and anti-nutrients designed to bring misery to any creature that dares to eat it. (6)
  • Refined fructose sugar. All refined fructose sweeteners supply energy-dense, easily-digestible calories. In excess (more than 20-30 grams per day), it can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), (7) overweight and obesity, and a condition known as hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the blood), which has been linked to atherosclerosis, diabetes, enhanced tissue growth, insulin resistance, heart disease, and osteoporosis. (3
  • Omega-6-rich polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Omega-6 is an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid that is pro-inflammatory, causing chronic body-wide inflammation when habitually eaten in excess (more than 4 percent of total calories). Polyunsaturated fatty acids are highly unstable, going rancid with even the slightest amount of heat, pressure, or chemical processing. Fats that are either high in omega-6 oils and/or rancid can cause chronic inflammation in the body; chronic inflammation has been linked to several diseases (e.g., atherosclerosis, allergies, degraded immune response, cancer). (8)
  • Engineered foods that come in a bag, box, or can. Foods with a long shelf-life are usually heavily processed, chemically preserved, taste enhanced, and/or missing nutrients that were present in its raw ingredients. This creates a situation where a person is malnourished with a full stomach. 
So it seems that in the modern world (especially here in America) we all live in a giant food dessert, filled with foods that are not designed to support human health, only to taste so good that you will eat (and buy) way more than you need. It's all simple economics: Cheaper, faster, and more delicious. Until the USDA acknowledges this reality, obesity (as well as heart disease and diabetes) will continue to be an unnecessary epidemic.

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