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As processed food displaces nutritious food, more people gain weight and get sick

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Fast food. Photo: SteFou!/Flickr

The rate of obesity in Canada has risen to epidemic proportions, with one in eight of us now clinically obese and nearly half of us weighing more than we should. And it's not because people are indifferent to weight gain. Far from it. The exercise and weight-loss business is booming, and diet books are consistently near the top of the bestseller lists.

I deeply empathize with those who are battling weight gain. A few decades ago ago, my unhealthy eating habits had also bulked me up by an extra 80 pounds. Weighing 250 pounds, with most of the additional fat packed around my waist and thighs, I was clinically obese. Belatedly but resolutely, I decided to rid myself of that excess poundage. And with the invaluable help of my wife Dena and a medical diet specialist, I succeeded.

It took nearly three years for me to trim back to my previous 175-pound size. Eschewing junk food, converting to a primarily vegetarian diet, and with Dena's culinary expertise, I have never again exceeded this salubrious weight level. In addition to my now healthy diet, I also "work out" on a stationary bike in front of our TV set for 20 minutes or a half hour most weekday evenings. That's usually between 7 and 8 p.m., so I can watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and exercise my mind at the same time.

I now attribute much of my ongoing health and longevity to my heart's great relief that it is no longer compelled to pump blood to an extra 80 pounds.

I know from experience how difficult it is to avoid weight gain in today's processed food culture, and how much more difficult it is to shed the excess pounds after they have been acquired. In my case, I knew it was a combination of a sedentary occupation, lack of exercise, and indifference to the quality, caloric content, and nutritional value of the foods I ate. But why was it so easy to fall into this kind of seductive eating trap and so difficult to escape from it?

A diet designed to make us fat

The short answer is that the modern Western diet is conducive to -- is arguably designed to -- make people fat. It lures us into eating more meat, more snacks, more processed foods, and less fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It's loaded with added sugar, salt, and "preservatives." It's a high-caloric prescription for poor health as well as a pot belly.

When you add to today's deleterious diet the baneful effects of chemical pesticides and herbicides, the depletion of fertile soil, and the conversion of whole foods to "refined" foods, you get the answer to both the obesity epidemic and the rising rates of related disease.

In an essay in the New York Times magazine a few years ago, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, boiled down his recipe for a healthy diet to these three brief directions: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

By eating food, he meant sticking to real food and avoiding fatty foodlike substitutes like breakfast-cereal bars and non-dairy creamers. "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," he suggested. It's good advice, if easier said than followed.

Pollan urged that we emulate the residents of Okinawa, Japan, who base their diet on what they call "Hara Hachi Bu," which translates as "eat until you are 80 per cent full." In other words, get used to smaller portions.

Eating mostly plants, he noted, and treating the occasional piece of meat as a side dish, means you'll automatically be consuming fewer calories. "Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores," he pointed out, "but near-vegetarians are also as healthy as vegetarians."

Staying alive with ill health

There's a big deterrent to be overcome, however, in switching to a healthful way of eating. Today's standard processed diet has become so entrenched that it is now widely accepted as nutritious. And because it is loaded with sugar-sweet glucose and readily available at restaurants and grocery stores, it has become almost as addictive as heroin or cocaine -- and as hard to quit.

By the time many thousands consuming this tasty but pernicious diet become overweight and seriously ill, it's too late to become vegetarians. In desperation, they then have no choice but to turn to our health-care system to help them.  

"Modern medicine," writes Pollan, "is learning how to keep people alive whom the Western diet is making them sick. It's gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it's working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is marvellously adept at turning the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery.

"But, while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, the cost to society is unsustainable," Pollan insists. "The cost to the health-care system in the U.S. of treating the victims of diet-related diseases is estimated at more than $200 billion a year."

Because of Canada's public provision of medical care, the cost of the diet-related ills incurred by people in this country would not be as high as a proportionate $10 billion a year. But even discounting the "free" treatment by doctors and hospitals after they get sick, Canadians suffer as much from junk food consumption as their American counterparts. So the other steep costs -- life-extending drugs, home care, lost work time, less income, etc. -- would certainly amount to at least an annual $5 billion in Canada.

It would be a stretch to infer that the conversion of our diet from nutritious food to unwholesome food is a deep, dark capitalist plot. It's not. But it's undeniable that the big corporations that grow, process, refine, salt-and-sugar-stuff, calorie-maximize, and sell the foods that make us sick derive enormous profits from doing so.

And it's equally irrefutable that the more people are sickened by malnutrition, the more the drug companies, the pharmacies, the high-tech health-care hardware makers, the doctors and nursing home operators benefit financially.

The bottom line: any system, no matter how harmful, that enriches the executives and major investors of such powerful corporations is never going to be changed from above. Not as long as profit-obsessed capitalism remains the dominant economic system. So it's up to each of us, as consumers, to take charge of our own diets and our own weight.

As I found out, that's very difficult -- but it can be done.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Photo: SteFou!/Flickr

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