'The Big Fat Crisis'

'The Big Fat Crisis'

How bad food is killing good people

By Ellen Snortland 02/05/2014

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Dr. Deborah Cohen is truly a Renaissance woman: physician, filmmaker, public health expert, RAND Corp. senior natural scientist, family woman and author of the recently released “The Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic and How We Can End It.”   

In the book, Cohen states, “If most restaurants, supermarkets, and advertisements primarily encourage the consumption of foods that increase the risk of chronic diseases, we should anticipate that a lot of people will get sick.” That’s a big, fat “duh” for some of us, and I wish it were more obvious to more people. Sadly, it isn’t, and that’s a big, fat shame.

As a recovering compulsive eater and formerly obese person, I experience daily assaults on my resolve to avoid the crap that could kill me. I’m used to it now, but the pull to eat more and eat worse is ubiquitous, ranging from the well-meaning relative sticking a homemade sugary treat in my face all the way to the corporations that make billions from our compulsion to eat beyond what is necessary for good health. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Cohen skillfully provides viable contexts for food; we have overhauled the ways we deal with sanitation and safe water to avoid typhus and cholera. No one in California has to breathe in secondhand smoke in public. Our dangerous food is as deadly if you tally up deaths from food-related cancer and heart disease. We’ve also transformed our attitudes toward alcohol. Big Food must be next.

Big, fat kudos to Cohen for taking on the food industry, currently using every available marketing ploy — point of purchase “impulse buy” areas, product placement and saturation ads in the media, fast food up-sizing — to manipulate our collective hard-wired survival imperative to eat as much as we can whenever we can, despite the long-term damage such overeating creates. They pull in kids. We have a glut of damaging food everywhere, and the lobbies keeping that in place are a lot better funded than we as individuals are. What can be done?

Never fear! “Out of power” groups, like women, historically have nonviolently taken on seemingly implacable forces, as when they fought for the right to vote without having the vote themselves, and when they led the movement to stop drunks from drinking themselves and their families into oblivion.

What I really liked about Cohen’s book is she repeatedly takes the onus of obesity away from the individual alone and creates new contexts for viewing what is clearly a societal problem. Shaming obese people is not going to create a shift in their eating. We — as individuals and families — have already tried shaming with little result. It’s not an accident that “Weight of the Nation,” one of the most important documentary films ever made about the societal impact of our obesity epidemic, was aired by ad-free HBO last year. The regular networks, whose ad revenue relies heavily on “bad food,” would never have bitten the sugary, greasy hands that feed them. If you haven’t seen the four-part miniseries, you truly must if you know anyone who struggles with weight, which statistically we all do. You can see it for free on either iTunes or at theweightofthenation.hbo.com .

To see the monumental effort needed to transform our “food landscape,” as Cohen terms it, start with Big Sugar, which has its roots in the slave trade. Download the groundbreaking “Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It” by the late British scientist John Yudkin, with a new introduction by Dr. Robert H. Lustig — the Joss Whedon of sugar research, as well as pioneering voice in the fight against  pediatric obesity. It’s shocking to see how the sugar industry threw formidable money and energy to both discredit Yudkin and artificial sweeteners. Have you bought into the false “meme” that all artificial sweeteners are dangerous? That meme was bought and continues to be paid for by Big Sugar.

I also like Cohen’s calls to action and analysis of obesity, which is to challenge the way we relate to food and food suppliers. Supermarkets and restaurants can compete for the most healthful choices available. For instance, I am impressed by the humane leadership of Panda Express and their co-CEOs Andrew and Peggy Cherng. They take a public stand for the wellbeing of Panda Express (PE) employees. To encourage their leadership, I would love to frequent PE, but last we checked, every dish they make has sugar in it … in some cases, a lot of sugar. I abstain from sugar for many reasons, including that it makes me physically sick. Even if PE were to provide 10 percent of their menu as being sugar-free, they’d see an uptick in their business and could advertise “sugar-free.” As Whole Foods has amply shown, people vote with their wallets regarding what they consume.

Read “The Big Fat Crisis,” and join Cohen, Lustig and the crusading Gary Taubes, who wrote “Is Sugar Toxic?” so we can all be led out of temptation. As Margaret Mead so famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And together we can make a big deal of the food that is killing us. 

Ellen Snortland leads writing workshops in Altadena. snortland.com

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