Sunday, January 12, 2014

Government Food Policies - Demanding Foxes Guard the Henhouse

While doing some research going through old microfilm at the Memphis Library's main branch on Poplar I ran across this old piece of dietary advice from the Memphis Press Scimitar newspaper in 1964.

The paper was recommending a diet full of fatty organ meats while dismissing plant-based foods like beans and peas as lesser quality proteins. Going through the old microfilm it is also jarring to notice how fit and slim almost everybody looked back then. Young, old, rich people, working-class people, men, women, black, white; I mean almost everybody.

I was an era in the South where almost every vegetable consumed was cooked with animal fat and when breakfast meant eggs cooked in real butter with bacon or sausage. When "whole milk" was simply called milk and the skimmed milk  leftover from making cream and butter was used to fatten pigs. It was nearly 30 years before the release of the USDA Food Pyramid in 1992. It was before people started following advice from the government, processed food companies and the medical industrial complex to cut animal fats from their diets. When you look at a picture of slim middle-aged men in suits at a Rotary Club meeting in the early '60s it is safe to assume that most of them had desk jobs and they weren't attending spin classes or running on treadmills after work.

Since then Americans have cut back on their consumption of animal fats. They've cut back on pork and beef and embraced boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They've dramatically increased their consumption of whole grains. They've cut fat from their diets and most of the fat they do consume comes from seed oils full of polyunsaturated fats instead of old staples like butter, beef tallow and pork lard.

The result has been a steady increase in rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and heart disease. The only area where people have ignored the food pyramid has been sugar, which has seen consumption rates increase dramatically. Of course, when you demonize dietary fat people have to find some way to get some flavor with their food. And government subsidies for corn have turned sugars like high fructose corn syrup into incredibly cheap calories sources.

I was reading today's Commercial Appeal when I ran across a column by Deborah Cohen, a physician and researcher at the Rand Corp., decrying the "food swamp" that we live in today. No argument there. Visit a modern grocery store and you'll find shelves lined with what food writer Michael Pollan has termed "edible food-like substances" instead of the fresh foods humans evolved eating.

But where Collen lost me entirely was her conclusion that, "Today, the harms associated with overeating in America are at least as great as the harms from drinking. Just as we needed policies to protect people from having alcohol thrust in their faces everywhere they went, we need to develop and implement policies that protect people from food cues and triggers designed to make them eat when they're not hungry and over-consume. It's time to drain the food swamp."

She is calling for government policy to dictate the availability of food. What would the basis for those policies be? In a previous column for the Healthcare Blog she wrote that, "The FDA should take a disease prevention approach — as it is currently doing with trans fat — in promoting standards that address how all foods are prepared and served away from home. Such regulations could be based on existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines that limit exposure to foods that increase health risks and optimize exposure to foods that protect against chronic disease."

The USDA dietary guidelines call for a grain-based diet with severely limited saturated fat. It's a diet that is responsible for our current epidemic of high blood sugar and all the other medical problems that stem from it like obesity, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. It isn't a diet based on science. It is a diet based on a government agency being charged with selling the agricultural products our government subsidizes.

Subsidies make foods like corn, wheat and soy appear cheap. They make farmers replace grazing land for animals with fields of monocrops that get harvested, shipped to high-density feedlots and fed to animals there instead. They turn unhealthy junk like flour, high fructose corn syrup and corn and soybean oil into ultra-cheap ingredients for the processed food industry, which makes those empty calories a huge part of the modern American diet.

People following government dietary guidelines have been a huge boon for a medical industry that absorbs 17 percent of the U.S. economy largely treating symptoms instead of making people healthy.

Cohen is correct that the obesity epidemic isn't a simple matter of lack of willpower in the general population. People are being manipulated and mislead. But she places all the blame on the food industry while calling for the government to help. Our modern food system is already the result of an unholy marriage of government and industry. The military industrial complex created a blueprint for making vast fortunes tying business to government policy. Our current agricultural industrial complex, like our current prison industrial complex and medical industrial complex, is just copying a successful formula.

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