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April 18, 2012


Why we love eating crap

Junk food in grocery stores

It's become very fashionable to talk about the concept of "food deserts" as an explanation for why so many Americans, especially poor Americans, don't eat healthy food and are overweight. The thinking goes, if poor people had access to fresh produce and other healthy food, they would eat better, and be less fat. But they don't have access, so they eat Ding Dongs and pork rinds and whatever you can get at a liquor store snack rack.

Personally, I think this line of thinking is garbage, which is why I'm so psyched about an article in today's Times about the myth of the food desert and access/inaccess to healthy food as a predictor of weight problems. Two new studies basically debunk two big ideas that went into the "food desert" myth: that poor urban neighborhoods don't have grocery stores, and that living close to a grocery store makes it less likely that you'll be overweight.

Turns out there are just as many grocery stores in poor neighborhoods as in rich ones, and proximity to a grocery store has no bearing on thinness or fatness. The scientists involved didn't propose an explanation for this, but I have a few of my own. First, EVERYBODY LOVES TO EAT CRAP. Also, JUNK FOOD COMPANIES SPEND BILLIONS ON ADVERTISING.

It really bugs me when people in positions of power talk about how to change poor people's eating habits, as though poor people are powerless to make good decisions about what they want, and if a kind benefactor just paid for a bunch of green carts selling fruits and vegetables (like we have all over NYC now) poor people will gratefully enrich their diets with wholesome produce and stop having diabetes and heart disease.

Look at rich people, who supposedly have ample access to fruits and vegetables and pretty much anything else they want! Have you seen a menu at a fancy restaurant lately? With all the expensive and totally unhealthy pork belly hash and the duck fat tater tots and dates wrapped in bacon and peanut butter and, God help us, fried pizza?

The fact is, whether we have nice produce at our grocery stores or not, and whether we shop at Whole Foods or at a corner store, we as humans still love to eat greasy, fatty, sugary garbage. We can't help it. As Cintra Wilson once wrote, left to our own devices, people would consume nothing but bacon, cans of whipped cream, and Starburst.

The other problem is grocery stores themselves--even in rich neighborhoods in New York, I see anemic looking pink tomatoes and gnarly wilted lettuce and shriveled green beans all the time. Gristede's sucks whether it's in Washington Heights or the West Village. It's not like "nice neighborhood" or "grocery store" means "decent produce" in this city. And you can bet every store's shelves are well stocked with an impressive selection of Pringles™.

But changing people's behavior is a whole lot harder than just installing some green carts, if you're concerned about healthy eating. Plus it might mean looking critically at how rich people behave, which I seriously doubt is any better than poor people in terms of Cheetos™ consumption. Maybe the only thing that unites Americans now is potato chips.

categories: Economics, Food, NYC, Politics, Science
posted by amy at 1:52 PM | #

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Here in Osaka, my local convenience store has Pringles, snickers and Coca-Cola (as well as dozens of Japanese versions of candy and potato chips), yet I'm always the only fat guy in the store. In Japan, people look at high-fat, high-calorie snacks as a small addition to their daily food intake, a food intake that also includes lots of vegetables.

I'm speaking in terms of ridiculous generalities of course, but if you ask a little Japanese kid what their favorite food is, they'll inevitably answer with something like strawberries or apples. What would the average American kid say?

My mom (God bless her) was an awful cook, and absolutely murdered whatever vegetables she prepared (and oh, those awful iceberg lettuce-based salads that made me hate salads for years!), so I avoided vegetables for years. And got fat (you remember what a whale I was in college!).

My wife is Japanese, and she prepares delicious vegetable dishes, with appropriately small portions of proteins and carbs (pretty much the same portions my nutritionist told me to eat 15 years ago in the states). In Japan, junk food is basically seen as a treat, or a quick stop-gap until you can get real food. Somehow in the states junk food has become a staple, no doubt due in large part to advertising and government policy.

I guess my only real point is that while I agree with you that access is not the only problem, I still think the problem runs deeper than just the inherent appeal of junk food. Again, there are McDonald's and KFCs all over the place in Japan, but there just aren't that many fat people.

My own weight still roller-coasters up and down in Japan, just like back home, and I'm currently working out and dieting like a madman to get ready for a presentation I'm doing in Chicago in August, so apparently I carry my food culture with me, although I've been changing it slowly but surely. At least I eat a lot more veggies now.

Posted by: Tim at April 18, 2012 9:18 PM

I never did understand the food desert idea. I mean, if needing to take a bus a few miles to a grocery store means you live in a food desert, we here in the 'burbs live in food gulag. There's a lovely farm within walking distance, but we can't live on kale and blueberries alone (or we could, but we'd take on a funny color).

Posted by: Matt S at April 19, 2012 12:17 PM

Yeah, really! If you don't live in one of the 3 or 4 cities in our country with decent public transportation, and you don't own a car, you're probably in your own personal food desert.

It does seem that junk food has become a regular part of of many American diets, but I guess that's not the case in countries like Japan. My concern about the push to make produce more available in US cities is that even if people do start eating more vegetables, they'll just ADD vegetables to their already horrible diets, instead of REPLACING Doritos and Coke with carrots and spinach. Which doesn't really solve anything.

I think what's really happening is that we're all physically designed to basically be farm laborers and do hard manual work all day. Hardly any of us actually are, though we still eat like we've been out working in the fields all day. A lot of us spend our days sitting down, which means we could probably get all the calories we actually need by eating an occasional small salad and lentils, which obviously there's just no way.

Posted by: amy at April 20, 2012 11:23 AM

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