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Can the Food Industry Make Us Skinny?

Since the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, we have had U.S. dietary advice to eat less fat, less sugar, less sodium—and meanwhile we have gotten fatter. The food industry continues to do its job and respond to the latest nutrition advice to prevent chronic disease. In the 1980s, everyone was counting grams of fat and a whole industry of low- fat, tasty products was born. All the effort to create a new low-fat category of most products did not make us skinnier; in fact, it made us fatter.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans supports less consumption of sodium, solid fats, and added sugars. Make half your grains whole and half your plate fruits and vegetables. Seems simple for the food industry—keep slashing salt (but make sure my food is safe), get rid of added sugar (but add fruit and fruit extracts to everything), and make chips, pizza crust, cookies, and all other grains “whole” so they are healthy. Probably a good idea to tax soda, outlaw French fries, ban chocolate milk in schools (added sugar is bad, right?), and over-regulate school lunch, restaurants, and food manufacturers. Let’s blame the victim too—we know fat people are lazy, uneducated, and low income—too bad they live in food deserts and don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Hope my BMI is under 25 today!

Diet is a complicated issue. Obese children don’t eat more sugar and fat, but do live in low income households where food security is a problem. Studies find that regular family meals and regular exercise are associated with better health and weight status in children, not outlawing important cultural foods and traditions.

My experience on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) made me conclude that efforts to micromanage the diet by imposing strict dietary rules are difficult to support with evidence-based nutrition science. The underlying principles of good nutrition, moderation and variety, should continue to direct our nutrition policy. Concepts such as added sugars and solid fats, which are not linked to health outcomes, just add to the confusion for consumers and food manufacturers.

As Americans continue to be inactive, fewer calories are needed and those calories need to be chosen carefully. High quality protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber must be provided in food choices and these choices are particularly critical during growth and development. Food manufacturers will continue to respond to dietary guidance principles and develop good tasting low sodium, low calorie, high fiber, and whole grain products—that are clearly labeled with information on portion size and calorie content. They should not be blamed when these foods do not improve public health.

Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., R.D.
Department of Food Science and Nutrition
University of Minnesota

5 Responses

  1. If you don’t have a clue about truly good nutrition or real nutrition foods, it’s better not to say anything. If you are not sure where to lay the blame for our current obesity mess, again, don’t say anything.
    And the answer is no, the food industry will not make us slim but will fatten their own wallets by making us believe they can.
    You can’t put common sense in a box, neither can you get people to understand that all the generations before us were slimmer, healthier and didn’t rely on food factories to provide the food they ate.
    Our food is dead by on purpose, to have a longer shelf life or survive long distance shipping practices.
    Our food is “made” to be fast heated, not to be cooked from scratch. We don’t cook, we reheat one way or another. Foods now comes from the factory instead the fields or orchards. So many would starve without a microwave!
    Take a good long look at what previous generations ate and how they looked and what conditions they suffered with, then look at us today.
    We are literally dying of malnutrition, stuffed to our ears with “food”, while living in the land of plenty.
    Our heroes will never be the food industry.

  2. Joanna,

    You, talk of 1977 like it was so long ago. Your need for instant gratification as a nutritionist mirrors the eating habits of Americans. The smallest meaningful unit of “human nutrition time” is one human generation. To get a good feel for how something works, three generations is a more realist time frame to look at. Any study of food, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, ect… that takes shortcuts will yield incomplete results.


  3. And that is why there are animal studies, we, as humans, don’t have the luxury of waiting generations to see results.
    But we can look back on generations past and see the differences between us and our ancestors, especially the ones we actually lived with everyday.
    Short story is this, we are being fed to death with bad advice and wrongheaded theories on nutrition.
    Fats are essential to absorb and digest certain vitamins, minerals and other nutritional elements. The lack of enough fats in our diets can cause and be the source of many ailments that are not diseases but deficiencies, such as Pellagra, scurvy. Things modern doctors have not seen and would not recognize as not being diseases at all.
    We have been trained to believe that science and modern medicine are gods, never to be questioned or doubted, as being infallible. It makes it easy for the next half-baked diet theory to be pushed to the maximum profit.
    The Government’s approval of the current food guidelines will guarantee that our generation will be sickly, obese, malnourished, and prime targets for the food industry to exploit with new products based on those guidelines.
    All anyone has to do is think back on the last elderly generation to see the difference. Our world was populated with people working into their 90’s, lively and productive to the end. Politicians, presidents, doctors, lawyers and scientist. You could hardly name one that was under 50 or in bad health.
    The one thing they had in common was what they didn’t eat, they didn’t eat the same things we do now, nor did they restrict fats, sugars or load up on phoney, manufactured for long shelf life foods.
    People like Colonel Sanders who live into his 90’s and made his fortune selling and eating his fried chicken.

  4. There is no easy answer. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables. income levels, opportunity to exercise vs risk, time for family all add up to a complicated situation.
    Efforts to encourage community gardens, community recreation opportunities, community education need to be reinforced.

  5. There’s an often-overlooked facet of this argument: the food industry spends billions upon billions of dollars on behavior-modifying techniques (advertising, marketing, market research.)

    These are designed to do one thing: get people to consume more. I agree, WHAT they consume isn’t necessarily the issue (although note that most of our dietary gaffes have extremely high profit margins) it’s HOW MUCH. No matter how much money we put into nutrition education, it’s a pittance compared to food advertising and marketing.

    Legislation on marketing worked for cigarette addiction and helped with alcohol abuse, why not overeating?

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