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Is it Impossible to Make Health Food Choices?

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:54am

I was in New York City yesterday at a conference for health care practitioners on Nutrition and Health put on by Columbia University and the University of Arizona.

Andrew Weil started this conference highlighting that we need to address the nutritional illiteracy of physicians.   I couldn't agree more.

I think that nutrition is the most powerful tool I have in my medical tool kit to reverse and treat disease - and it was something I learned nothing about in medical school.

Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, and author of Food Politics painted a very concerning picture of our food culture, and the dangers of our food environment.

What bothers me the most is the widespread belief that personal responsibility is the answer to our obesity and health problems.  If people just didn't eat badly and exercised a little more, we all hear, then our chronic health problems would go away.   We are getting so much mis-information about food.  Physicians must address the peril of our current food situation.

We live in a culture that makes it nearly impossible to make healthy food choices. A number of food industry and political factors keep us sick and fat.  There are now 3900 calories a day available to every person in America - an increase of 700 calories since 1980.  In supermarkets 25% of the square footage is devoted to selling sugar.   The Center for Consumer Freedom, a front group for the food industry put $600,000 ads in major newspapers trying to convince us that the obesity epidemic is hype.

Political advice focuses personal responsibility, not the effects of a toxic food environment, it focuses on individual choices instead of public health initiatives, and treats all calories as equal, and ignores the science on differences in food quality.

And it makes things way too complex (like the new food pyramid) instead of focusing on simple principles, like eating whole, organic foods, with lots of fiber and or consuming a diet plentiful in fruits and vegetables and omega 3 fats, and low in sugar and junk food.

The consumer is not protected from advertising and marketing of poor quality foods that are calorie dense with little to no nutritional value.   Kellogg spent $32 million dollars in 2004 alone on marketing Cheez It to children.  And their heart healthy Smart Start cereal has the American Heart Association's seal of approval yet has 11 different types of sugar on the ingredient list.

Frosted Cheerios are now a health food because they have some whole oats, but also have 5 different types of sugar.  And our kids are brainwashed that they should eat special "kids" food.

The Institute of Medicine authored a report on marketing of junk food to children and how effective it is in increasing product sales, and on kids requests and preferences, and how bad it is for children's health.  There is now a special alliance of food manufacturers to protect their first amendment rights to advertise to children.  I think the framers of the constitution had other things in mind that allowing companies to market toxic foods to children.

I suggest a few simple things to help guide you to shopping in supermarkets and protect yourself (at least a little bit) from a toxic food environment:

- Buy around perimeter of the store (that's where the healthy stuff is)
- Don't go down isles (that's where most of the junk food is)
- Don't buy food in a box
- Or with more than 5 ingredients
- Or with ingredients you can't pronounce
- Or with a cartoon on package

Just remember every time you order in a restaurant or in the supermarket you vote with your fork. Choose foods that improve our health, our social structure and that helps us eat healthfully.

My goal is to empower people to make the good choices - and recognize that it takes extra effort because of the powerful forces working against us.

Sincerely,

Dr. Hyman

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