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Junk food and processed food has gotten a bad reputation as a primary cause of weight gain, but journalist David Freedman says, with some changes, it could actually help the obese in America's poorest neighborhoods. (Flickr user tuchodi)

Forget the Vegetables—Junk Food Could Help Fight Obesity

Journalist David Freedman says engineering healthier versions of popular treats could finally help the poorest and most obese Americans lose weight

The 2004 release of Super Size Me—a documentary about Morgan Spurlock’s 24-pound weight gain and health decline during a month-long McDonald’s binge—and other books and exposés of the last decade, for that matter, have tarnished the reputation of fast food and other processed foods.

But what if the food Spurlock ate at the chain was healthier? What if, by eating food engineered to be lower-calorie, lower-fat versions of popular favorites, he lost weight in the course of 30 days rather than gain it?   

Journalist David Freedman says in the world of weight loss, "what counts is calories, fat and sugar, which processed foods can be low in, and unprocessed foods can be high in." Photo courtesy of David Freedman.

Journalist David Freedman made this case—that fast food and processed food may actually help in the fight against obesity instead of hindering it—in an article this summer in The Atlantic. At a time when the loudest and clearest food message is to eat fresh, locally grown, organic foods, the piece prompted a range of reactions from scientists and fellow journalists in the food and health worlds.

In a nutshell, can you explain your big idea?

A high percentage of the obese are more or less hooked on fatty, sugary, processed foods, and we seem helpless to change that. Getting the 100 million obese people in the U.S. to eat less junk food and more unprocessed, "whole" foods, would be helpful to turning the tide on the obesity epidemic—but unprocessed foods are largely too expensive and hard to access for large numbers of poor obese. What we can do right now with food technology is create lower-calorie, lower-fat, lower-sugar processed foods that will deliver the same stimulating sensations as the junkier stuff but help the obese make their diet healthier overall. We need to push the fast food and processed food industries to move toward these healthier versions of their foods.

So wait—Twinkies could actually help people lose weight?

Yes, Twinkies could actually help people lose weight, if there were lower-calorie but still tasty versions of them. But the statement needs some qualifications. It's not the ideal way to lose weight; it only makes sense if for whatever reasons getting on a healthier diet isn't in the cards. It's the answer for someone who's going to keep eating Twinkies whether there are low-calorie versions or not. For that person, the lower-calorie Twinkie is potentially a step in the right direction. And, by the way, researchers have demonstrated that people can in fact lose weight on a diet of nothing but snack cakes, though no one is recommending it.

How did you get interested in this topic?

Six years ago, I struggled to lose 20 pounds, on doctor's orders. That got me wondering about obesity science in general, and the problem of behavior change in particular. Obesity is headed toward robbing living Americans today of a combined billion years of life.

There are a cacophony of conflicting theories and advice promoted by my fellow science journalists. Cut down on fat but feel free to eat lots of carbs. Cut down on carbs but feel free to eat lots of fat. Calories are everything, or calories don't matter at all. Exercise is the key rather than diet. Diet is the key rather than exercise. It's nearly impossible to keep lost weight off. It's all in the genes. It's all in your gut bacteria, and on and on.

I've traveled the U.S. and the world interviewing highly credentialed obesity experts and observing their weight-loss programs. There's little controversy among scientists about what works, and it's been backed up by hundreds of studies. What works is gradually moving people to lower-calorie, less-fatty, less-sugary foods and getting them moving more, along with providing a broad array of behavioral supports so they stick with it forever. The claims pushed by prominent journalists for magic-bullet solutions like switching wholesale to natural foods or to ultra-low-carb diets just cause most obesity experts to smack their heads in frustration, even though the public eats them up.

Well-read laypeople seemed to mostly parrot journalist Michael Pollan's science-free declaration that shunning processed foods can solve obesity and all other food-related health problems, though processing in and of itself is utterly irrelevant to obesity. What counts is calories, fat and sugar, which processed foods can be low in, and unprocessed foods can be high in.

Honey and fruit jam right off the farm-stand shelf are sugary calorie nightmares, and pork belly from locally raised, free-range, antibiotic-free pigs is a fatty calorie nightmare. But a McDonald's egg-white breakfast sandwich, though processed, is a relatively low-calorie, tasty dish that's a great source of lean protein, and has whole grains, both of which are key, satisfying target foods for people who want to keep weight off.

What is this pervasive message, that all processed foods are bad, doing to Americans’ ability to lose weight?

I realized this enormous misconception—the absurd dream of getting farm-fresh meals onto the plates of tens of millions of poor, obese people hooked on junk food—was standing in the way of what might be the one workable solution to attacking obesity: getting the food industry to create healthier versions of its popular foods that those people would actually eat. We need lower-fat meat, in particular, beef; reduced-sugar versions of candy, cakes and other sweets; reduced-fat substitutes for oily foods like salad dressing; whole-grain versions of floury foods like white bread. But we need these healthier versions to taste and look exactly like the originals, or most people won't switch to them.

What are the challenges to making low-calorie, low-fat, low-sugar alternatives tasty?

There are few serious technical or manufacturing obstacles to making healthier versions of popular processed foods. Food scientists know how to replace fat and sugar in foods with healthier alternatives that taste just about the same. It's not a perfect art yet, but it's getting there fast. The bigger challenge is getting the big food companies to really push this stuff, given that the public tends to be wary of healthier alternatives, and that health-food advocates condemn these efforts rather than applaud them. What's the incentive for these companies to make healthier foods? I'm in favor of forcing them to do it through regulation, but the American public hates that sort of regulation, so it won't happen.

A compounding problem is the relentless criticism that the delusional, misinformed, blind haters of all processed foods aim at Big Food companies that even try to bring out healthier stuff. Burger King's Satisfries and McDonald's Egg-White McMuffin have both been hooted down in the press by health-food advocates as not being truly healthy foods—never mind that these dishes are great steps in the right direction. It's absurd and disastrously counter-productive.

What makes your approach more realistic than a switch to whole, unprocessed foods, from an economic standpoint?

No one—absolutely no one—has advanced a clear plan for how at any time in the next 50 years we're going to be able to grow, ship and sell enough whole food to an entire population that today mostly lives on processed food. Add to this simple fact that this movement wants to do away with giant farms, food factories and shipping foods over distances. Then add to it that if there were some miraculous way to pull this off, the prices for the food would be astronomical by anyone's reckoning, compared to processed foods. It's a lovely idea—hey, I'd love to live in that world—but it's an absurd pipe dream. Meanwhile, the human race is giving up a billion years of life to obesity, and on average hugely lowering the quality of those years of life that we do have.

In this Knight Science Journalism critique of your piece, the author writes: 

One way Freedman works his magic is to confuse ‘unprocessed foods’ with ‘wholesome foods.’ Most of his examples of unprocessed foods are things he says are ‘tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority.’… Grass-fed beef might be too expensive and too difficult to produce for the masses. But what about soybeans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables? They are commodities, they are cheap, and they are plentiful.

What’s your response to this?

This is breathtakingly ignorant, and sadly typical of many of the loud, arrogant voices that objected to my article. Though to be sure, some of the objections to my article were more thoughtful and well informed. These folks have clearly led cushy lives, and need to find out how most of the country and world lives. I've led a cushy life, too, but before opening my mouth on this subject I went out and spent many, many hours walking a number of different disadvantaged neighborhoods all over the country and the planet: talking to countless people in these communities about their diets and shopping, visiting their stores, and interviewing scientists and clinicians who directly work with overweight populations. Let me tell you, it doesn't get simpler or truer than this: Processed food is, for all but the most geographically isolated communities cheaper, more convenient, and easier to access. What's more, it pushes people's taste-sensation buttons. We've been telling the world for nearly a century to eat more vegetables. How's that working out? This fellow might get all his buttons pushed by broccoli that's readily accessible and affordable to him (and so do I, by the way), but the fact that he thinks it applies to the rest of the world, and in particular to the obese world, and most particularly to the obese population that is poor and vulnerable, is a good sign of how poor a job journalists have done in researching this subject before pontificating about it.

Every big thinker has predecessors whose work was crucial to his discovery. Who gave you the foundation to build your idea?

B.F. Skinner, a Harvard behavioral scientist and social philosopher, is, in my book, the patron saint of the science of behavior change. He took us 90 percent of the way there, and everything since then has either been in the wrong direction or is fighting to work out the remaining 10 percent. Skinner demonstrated with striking clarity how all organisms, including humans, tend to do what they are rewarded to do. It's really that simple. The tricky part sometimes is to identify what the rewards are behind certain behaviors, but in the case of obesity it's pretty obvious: People get the huge sensual reward of eating high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods, and of sitting around on their butts. These rewards are deceptively powerful, much more so for most of us than the negative consequences of overeating and under-exercising, consequences that tend to come on us at an imperceptible rate, versus the huge, immediate rush we get from eating. Thus to beat the problem we need to make sure people are getting similarly powerful rewards from eating healthier foods. Making available healthier versions of junk food that deliver similar sensations is a great way to do it.

Who will be most affected by this idea?

I've heard directly and indirectly that the article has had a big impact in the processed food industry, especially at fast food companies.

How so?  

Several major food companies have told me that the article has led to a stream of conversations about how they might move toward more healthy foods. I've also heard from a number of food industry groups asking me to speak at conferences.

Most of the public, as is true with politics and most everything else, has already made up its minds about this subject and won't be swayed by my article. But a small, more open-minded segment of the public seems to have found the article eye-opening. I take a lot of encouragement in that.

How might it change life, as we know it?

It would be wonderful if the article went at least a very small way toward making it easier for processed-food companies to bring out healthier versions of their products without being hooted down by the Pollanites. Burger King brought out its lower-calorie, lower-fat "Satisfries" a month or so after the article came out. I think that's entirely a coincidence, but hey, a journalist can dream.

What questions are left unanswered?

So many! Will Big Food actually bring out healthier products? If they do, will the obese public be willing to try embracing them? If they do move to these products, will it really get them on the road to losing and keeping off weight? Might the government be able to use regulation, or the threat of it, to accelerate the move to healthier processed foods?

What is next for you?

I hesitate to even mention what I'm working on, because it explores an argument that tends to provoke intensely negative reaction from most people. But it follows the theme of my trying to point out how sometimes the well-educated, generally affluent influencers in the public who see themselves as champions of beneficial change for all actually cling to notions that in the end are good for them but more generally bad for the poor and vulnerable.

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