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Vol. LXIV, No. 46
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Too Many Calories Say Kessler, Nestle, Reichl, as They Discuss Politics of Food, Health Care

Ellen Gilbert

“Everybody in America is on a diet and everybody is living in torment,” said former Food and Drug Commissioner David Kessler, setting the scene for a recent discussion on “The Politics of Food and Health Care,” sponsored by the Stafford Little Lecture Fund at Princeton University.

Mr. Kessler, who is now a professor of pediatric epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, was joined by Marion Nestle, New York University’s Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. Former New York Times food critic and editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine Ruth Reichl served as moderator for the event, which drew a full house in the McCosh Hall auditorium.

“In 2002, obesity was a matter of personal responsibility,” said Ms. Nestle in her opening remarks. In other words, it was a parent’s fault if his or her child was fat. Five years later, Ms. Nestle observed, the onus is now on the environment. Changes in farm policies have resulted in an overabundance of food, bringing the average available number of calories per person each day to 3,900, or twice the average need.

Corporate ability to finance elections and the “shareholder value movement,” which she traced back to a 1981 speech by businessman Jack Welch in which he called for greater corporate returns, are major contributors to the current atmosphere of promoting more food than is good for most of us. The recent revelations about how the U.S. Government has pushed cheese consumption confirmed this, and an image of a very overweight Uncle Sam, wielding a huge, Dagwood-style sandwich with the message, “I want you to eat more” illustrated her point. 

“Why do I have suits in every size?” asked Mr. Kessler, eliciting knowing laughter from the audience. The author of The End of Overeating pointed to the combination of sugar, salt, and fat in our diets, and the brain circuitry they influence, as the primary culprits. For an example of how the food-conditioned mind works he said that whenever he is travelling to San Francisco his mind conjures up thoughts of Chinese dumplings as soon as his plane lands.

“In the presence of a varied and limitless diet,” observed Mr. Kessler, “people tend to eat excessively.” Ms. Nestle chimed in with her own mantra, “larger portions have more calories,” more than once.

“Today’s food goes down in a whoosh,” said Mr. Kessler, noting the recent trends to snack between meals. Eating while walking down the street was never before acceptable, he observed. On the other hand, he warned, the demonization of food runs the danger of fostering eating disorders like anorexia. “It’s not about weight,” he emphasized. “Make it about the food.”

Ms. Nestle described the notion that children are supposed to eat different foods than adults as “subversive.” Marketers have deliberate strategies that even include a “pester their parents” component, she reported.

The good news, however, is that we’re in the midst of a food revolution. The “slow,” organic, and local food movements are converging “to make the food supply healthier.” Ms. Nestle also reported being “heartened about what’s going on in schools,” where concerted efforts are being made to teach youngsters about where food comes from and to emphasize the remarkably different taste of fresh food. The result, she said, will be more adventurous eaters.

“It’s up to all of us to keep these movements alive,” said Ms. Reichl. An image of carrot-nibblers Barack and Michelle Obama à la American Gothic made this hopeful point.

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