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Morning Joe: The Food Wars in Microcosm

Posted Mar 15 2013 9:49am

by Barbara Berkeley, MD

 I am a big fan of Morning Joe, MSNBC's thoughtful and viewer-friendly morning news program.  For those who have never seen it, this show is built on the sometimes warm, sometimes snarky relationship between its two hosts.

 Mika Brzezinski is the liberal daughter of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough is the eloquent staunch conservative and former Florida congressman.   These two serve as effective foils for one another, each one looking as if he or she just stepped out of the pages of GQ or Vogue.  At the same time, this compelling pair maintains an intellectual repartee that is at turns affectionate, quizzical, testy and, at times, downright hostile.  

No topic serves to create as much tension between Brzezinski and Scarborough as diet and the obesity epidemic.  Mika, who is a runner and staunch supporter of clean eating, is about to publish a book about the poisonous qualities of modern food.   Joe is a fan of sweet tea, Twinkies and junk food.  He wants government out of the kitchen.  And he is especially set off by what he perceives as Mika's pontificating and moralizing about food.  This  short interview in Parade  will give you a good sense of the on-air feuding, but one senses that this is not simply schtick.  There is a sore spot here.  

You can get a better sense of where Mika is coming from  in this short written piece  which includes a video clip from the show.  You will have to fast forward a bit, but toward the end of the clip you will get a taste of the sparring that takes place between Mika and Joe.  Missing from this particular encounter is Joe's tendency to escalate the fighting by proclaiming doughnuts healthy, swigging full sugar drinks while Mika talks, or brandishing junk food in front of the camera.  In short, Mika comes off like the impossibly moralistic teacher or Mom, while Joe acts the part of the obnoxious, smart-aleck teenager.  

These confrontations usually elicit sympathetic chuckles from the other men on the panel.  At times, there will be some minor concessions to Mika's point of view.   What I can tell you as a viewer is that these increasingly frequent battles, probably intended to be light fare, make me deeply uncomfortable.

What is playing out on Morning Joe is a microcosmic re-enactment of the real world Food Wars.  Many of us in the medical and nutritional fields and many average Joes who are interested in health feel we have "seen the light".  Modern foods, sugars and starches are like drugs which both control and blind us.  Once their influence is lifted, certain truths comes into focus.  And the world that we see is one where, tragically, millions of our peers are destroying the only bodies they have in order to defend the right to eat food that is manipulated and designed for profit.   Part of the fiction that these foods create in our brains is the notion that eating them can be controlled.  Part of the fiction that mass media promulgates is that "just exercising more" can undo the harm of eating these foods.  

Those of us who feel we "see" do tend to be preachy, passionate and slightly hysterical at times.  It's like knowing that someone has a bomb in their backpack and trying to convince the people around you that he's not just a nice guy and that someone needs to DO SOMETHING!!   At times, being a voice that opposes the food industry feels like one of those nightmares in which you're trying to get somewhere but just keep running in the same place. No wonder we tend toward the shrill.  

In my own home, my husband the gastroenterologist fully subscribes to my views on food.  He's the first to suggest them to patients and to proselytize among other doctors.  On the other hand, the minute we start talking about a food-related subject in private, he shuts me down and says I'm getting on my soapbox.  He claims that I can be obnoxiously single-minded and that I lecture him and others way too much.  At least he doesn't eat a Twinkie while he's saying that.  

I suspect that most of us on this side of the food fence have our Mika and Joe moments.

Joe suggests that everything is healthy in moderation.  He uses the "way back then" defense.  "Way back then" his grandmother and everyone else ate a ton of sugar and unhealthy food.  They just ran around alot more.  They burned it off.  If we would only do that today, all would be well.  This is nonsense.  I would like Joe to meet the many tennis players, runners and gym rats who come to my practice for weight loss.  Despite prodigious amount of calorie burn, these patients are overly fat.  Burning is not the solution that food producers and the "way back then"-ers suggest it is. 

What's missing in Joe's simplistic explanation is the very real sense that many practicing clinicians have that, in the past thirty years, something has changed in us that is deeply physiologic. We are not as we were.  We are not our grandmothers nor are we who we were as skinny, active kids.  Something is very amiss.  We don't know whether it is a bodily mechanism that is broken as a result of chemical exposure, whether the billions of symbiotic organisms that live in our gut have been adversely changed by antibiotics, or whether we have simply been changed in some way by escalating our consumption of non-nutritive foods.  But changed we are.  The foods that we used to be able to tolerate are now destroying us, and part of what is wrong is that we no longer able to say no to them.  This view vastly changes the playing field.  Moderation is no longer a viable option.  Deep changes in the way we view and produce food are essential if we are to avoid catastrophic medical costs and consequences. 

So there, I've preached again.  I've pontificated.  But, like Mika, I do have the urgent sense of needing to say this over and over.  Unlike Mika, and in my defense, my world revolves around people who come to me battered and broken from the eating of "everything in moderation" foods.  Some of my patients are clearly on the way to very abbreviated futures.  Almost all of them are on a long list of medications.  Every one of them is either unhappy, miserable or desperate.  And for what?  For food that they are being told is harmless--if only they will control it.

The Food Wars will continue and there will be many more people who snicker at the idea that modern food can kill us.  The viewpoints put forth by the Mikas and Mike Bloombergs of the world will be seen as alarmist and silly.  And I will continue to get on my well-worn soapbox.  But, despite us,  the burden of food-related disease in the United States will continue to rise.  The only question is whether we will continue to look everywhere else but at what we are eating for the cause. 




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