Just this month, in a paper about obesity as a risk factor for severe novel coronavirus infection published in the BMJ, the authors say: “The obesity pandemic is the result of living in food environments where it is difficult not to overconsume calories.” Full stop. It is not controversial.
Carbs, fat, additives, sugar: They’re the building blocks of foods engineered — successfully, as it turns out — to be irresistible. With an assist from social mores that turn every meeting, class, sporting event, even gas station stop into a snacking opportunity, we did exactly what a species optimized for scarcity does when faced with overwhelming abundance: We ate.
The culprit wasn’t any of those building blocks. The culprit was the old normal. Cheap, convenient food everywhere, and society’s blessing to eat anywhere. Before that, in the really old normal, people cooked plants and animals at home, ate something like three times a day, and obesity was rare and nobody fought about carbohydrate metabolism.
But another part of the old normal made it worse: Doctors, scientists and the public health community told us weight loss was possible — easy, even — if only we ate in this one particular way. Nobody agrees on the particular way, but let’s not quibble. For the most part, we know what not to eat, but just how are we supposed to do that when that very stuff is in our face 24/7?
It’s not a knowing problem, it’s a doing problem. It’s not a diet problem, it’s an environment problem. And an environment-busting pandemic is a remarkable opportunity to reshape what’s normal.
Most suggestions for food environment changes are top-down, with the government and large food companies in a leading role. While I’m certainly in favor of aligning public dollars with public health (we could revamp SNAP, restructure farm subsidies, tax sugar), and it’s crystal clear that Big Food has played a major role in obesity in the United States, there’s a problem with the top-down approach: It takes time.
It has taken a lot of time already. Calls for changes to subsidies, taxes and food companies’ portfolios have been going on for as long as I’ve been covering the space, with precious little to show for it. By all means, let’s keep fighting the good fight, but maybe it’s time for a little bottom-up.
Besides, normal is what we, the people, decide it is. If we want a better normal, now is the perfect time to take back the food environment.
Taking something back usually means taking it back from something pretty bad. When the women’s movement started “take back the night,” it was from rapists and abusers. But “take back the food environment” is from things we do want, which was what got us into this mess. Take it back from Doritos, from ramen, from hot dogs, from doughnuts.
That’s why this is hard. The problem isn’t doughnuts; it’s ubiquity. We need to safeguard the joy of a raised glazed, but we shouldn’t have to face down that…