What-about-ism at the Plate

By Diane Cress

We all know the primary contributor to obesity. We know it like we know that 1 + 1 = 2. But the industry that literally shoves it down our throats, works very hard to distract you from this truth. The food industry conspires to make America fat, for profit. It’s their business model to make money, of course, but at what cost to public health? The foods filling most of your grocery store space today are highly addictive products that are engineered to make you eat and eat and eat. You are being manipulated to play along, and you should know that.

You are likely aware that there is tremendous ambiguity in the literature about how we should eat. The food industry thrives on these ambiguities. The most recent loud and unnecessary debate in the public media has been about red meat. Some other historic flip-flops and reversals you probably remember include margarine, eggs, and fat. Science evolves and changes, that is normal, but why would the food
industry embrace (and market) this confusion? This is a well-known marketing scheme of the industry, called FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt), that creates an environment of deliberate, self-serving confusion. Specifically, you are being manipulated by false philanthropy, deflection, and what-about-ism.

Here’s what that what-about-ism might look like: Sugar makes you obese. Well, what about fat? Fat makes you obese. What-about sugar? A bad diet makes you obese. WHAT-ABOUT EXERCISE?

The food industry aggressively promotes physical activity. Enormous amounts of money are spent on advertising and fake philanthropy. And it’s nearly all targeted to children. Who would argue against a donation of millions to build playgrounds for kids? Who would argue against the promotion of physical activity? After all, physical activity is very important. That is not in question. But you should still resist
embracing the big-food promotion of physical activity, and here is why: The deflection away from the foods we buy, and toward exercise, is an intentional maneuver by the food industry to remove complicity for their role in the obesity epidemic. By shifting the focus away
from food, and toward exercise, they get to keep their share of your stomach. They have worked very hard to develop you as a customer. They have spent a lot of time and money to create highly addictive and cheap foods. Your favorite snack is scientifically designed to activate your limbic system and get you hooked. (See: Michael Moss’ Sugar, Salt, Fat). As an added bonus, these deflection strategies toward
exercise and away from food serve to target and brand your children. For life.

So, what is that “thing” that we all already know to be complicit in the obesity epidemic? Call it what you will. Junk food. Processed food. Ultra-processed food. Industrialized food. Fake food. Until now, the food industry has argued that there is no scientific evidence that their products contribute to obesity—remember FUD. And they FUD you about this even though industry leaders have been aware
for decades that their foods contribute to obesity (also Michael Moss, NYT 2013). Well, now there is some good scientific evidence highlighting a specific effect of this type of food on metabolism. (Hall et al, Cell Metabolism, 2019). This is the first study quantifying just how much the foods drive overconsumption. The gist of this study demonstrates that you just can’t stop eating (to the tune of 500 extra kcalories). Satiety/hunger signals are overridden by foods engineered to make you overeat. More studies should and will be done. But it only takes one study to disprove a negative claim: that there is no proof these foods contribute to obesity. Now there is. Predictably, there has been significant pushback regarding this study from the food industry. It is not unlike, as many have already suggested, the tobacco industry’s reluctance to accept responsibility for the harm cigarettes cause. And yet, the harm done by these addictive foods is far broader than the harm tobacco causes.

You can let the food industry play their “what-about-ism” game, or you can recognize the manipulation and exert power over your personal food choices. But the broader answers to the obesity epidemic are in a systematic change in how food is manufactured and marketed. Progress on this scale requires fundamental policy change. The food industry is not wholly to blame for our current state of public health, but they are a highly concentrated industry with enormous marketing and lobbying power.

Diane Cress, RD, PhD, is a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council, and Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at Wayne State University, https://s.wayne.edu/cress/