Thursday, November 09, 2006

Obesity/Hunger Paradox

Guadalupe Luna's excellent post on food insecurity raises an issue I've recently been writing about: That is, the hunger/obesity paradox. Here's a (modified with footnotes omitted) except from my forthcoming book review of The Omnivore's Dilemma:

Part of Michael Pollan’s impetus for writing The Omnivore's Dilemma, according to the introduction, is his observation of our collective national eating disorder. This disorder became apparent, for Pollan, in 2002, when America suffered a “collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia.” He’s referring, of course, to the Atkins craze: that is, the avoidance of carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.

Bulimia nervosa, commonly referred to as bulimia, is a particularly pervasive and painful eating disorder. People with the disorder consume large amounts of food (binge) and then do something to get rid of it (purge). Some bulimics vomit or take laxatives, others exercise excessively, and some do a combination. In this way, individuals with bulimia consume sometimes massive amounts of food, but are nonetheless inadequately nourished. Bulimics are at risk for multiple health problems, including tooth decay and gum disease (from stomach acid), osteoporosis, kidney damage, heart problems and death.

The national eating disorder Pollan recognizes bears a striking resemblance. We are surrounded by growing piles of corn-based food, rates of childhood obesity are skyrocketing, yet many children in this country, especially children from lower socio-economic classes, go to bed hungry.

This juxtaposition of piles of food, yet inadequate nutrition reverberates throughout our country. Pollan carefully documents the first part of this phenomenon. He reports that, since the Nixon administration, “farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from the 3,300 already substantially more than we need).” Our farmers produce so many calories, in fact, that our land grant schools struggle to come up with new uses for the surplus. Corn (and other crops) is now used not only to feed us, but to feed our cars in the form of ethanol and bio-diesel.

Despite this abundance, Pollan also recognizes that the issue of hunger perversely pervades our country, noting that “getting rid of [the piles of corn] contribute[s] to obesity and to hunger both.” How is it that we have so much food that we’re using it to run our cars and make cough medicine, but we can’t keep our children adequately nourished?

Childhood obesity rates are alarmingly high, so too, however, is the number of children who go to bed hungry in this country. While hunger and obesity trends in this country are commonly regarded as separate phenomena, recent findings have indicated that the two trends may be linked. Although counterintuitive, in what has come to be known as the “hunger-obesity paradox,” the “contradictory concepts of hunger and obesity are now known to coexist within the same person and within the same household.” Many children who suffer from hunger or food insecurity are also overweight or obese. The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. Research suggests that being overweight or obese can have severe health consequences, increasing the risk of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and even some cancers.

Pollan directs little attention to the problem of hunger in American, or in the world, for that matter. What Pollan does point out, however, is instructive to an understanding of the hunger-obesity paradox. Specifically, Pollan reveals that a significant amount of the corn produced in this country goes into value added products. (92, noting “In many ways breakfast cereal is the prototypical processed food: four cents worth of commodity corn . . . transformed into four dollars worth of processed food. What an alchemy!”) Pollan helps us see that while General Mills (or, Cargill or ADM) is coming up with more ways to make a $5.00 cereal-bar-nutritional-supplement-breakfast-snack product from 5 cents worth of corn, millions of kids are not getting basic nutrition. The obesity epidemic teaches us that some kids surely are getting plenty of soda and other “cheap” food, but the hunger side of the paradox shows us that those calories aren’t sufficient. Pollan talks about the “hidden costs” of our food system, and we must include the obesity-hunger paradox as one of those costs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

America's obesity epidemic should not be blamed on the American farmers ability to produce an abundance of inexpensive food. This is about food choices the average consumer makes and the lifestyles they live. 80 to 100 years ago the majority of Americans were closely tied with agricultural production. Our country had over 22 million farmers. Today we have around 2 million farmers. This was before the industrial revolution of agriculture. Physical labor was a part of most American's life. Now, we have memberships at a gym to try to make up for the lack of physical work and to undue the damage we have done with our diets. In addition, most of the meals Americans ate 80 years ago were home prepared meals and they were prepared from whole foods. Today, consumers want convenience - fast and easy to prepare or ready to eat now. Oh, it should also taste good and be fresh for at least 4 days after purchasing it from the retail store. The consumer-driven shift to processed, artificially preserved food products is (literally) at the heart of our society's obesity/diabeties problems. To further complicate this, our country has enjoyed cheap food for too long (at the food producers expense). We outrank all other nations in the low price we pay for food. Americans spend less than 10% of their net income on groceries. Britains spend between 13-15%, Mexico around 25% and India around 50%. Most other nations are around 20-25%. At the same time, the majority of American food producers live at near poverty earnings. A recent radio report stated over 30% of American farmers qualify for food stamps (shameful!). Many times I have witnessed folks in convenience stores using food stamps to purchase expensive non-nutritional food items and then dig some cash out of their wallets to buy cigarettes. This is about choices. Their needs to be better research and education about nutrition. The medical industry can be looked to for much of the bad nutrition/diet trends our society has followed. Not many doctors have advanced studies in the field of nutrition. Human nutrition is also very complicated and grossly under-researched and improperly researched to truly understand nutrition and todays food science implications. Science is way ahead in animal nutrition studies and technology because of how the research can be controlled to make most things equal and how the results can be evaluated. Most Americans being generations removed from food production do not understand modern farming practices and how their food is produced. This is leading to fear about food safety or quality and often unwise choices or misleading claims about foods. People should take the time to talk to farmers or farming organizations (Farm Bureau for example) for information on food production. Then they should get informed about basic nutrition and read labels. Stick with simple ingredient lists and whole foods and designate time to prepare more meals for your family.

1/26/2007 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cheers, anonymous! :)
It saddens me that there is such little demand for fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods that they are always significantly more expensive than, say, a bag of Doritos or a TV dinner.

4/20/2007 1:06 PM  
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