LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
In his article in the Daily Beast, Gary Taubes tells the tale of the first obesity clinic established at Columbia University by German physician, Hilde Bruch, in 1934. Upon her arrival in the US, she had been struck by the number of obese children that she observed. Her observations prompted the need for the clinic. In 2012 the numbers of obese people may have increased, but the problem is not a new one. And some of the cultural causes of the problem are due to our attempt to be healthy and maintain a healthy weight. Remembering how we have reacted to obesity in the past could help us find solutions today.
Doctors, nutritionists and other scientists posed a theory that postulated that fat, animal fat in particular, was the cause of heart disease and obesity and other health problems. Whether it was due to overzealousness on the part of nutritionists trying to create a clear path to health that could be followed by the general public or a failure of scientists to confirm the science before making pronouncements and recommendations, the result was that for years the public was told to avoid animal fat and eat less red meat. This led to the recommendation that we eat margarine instead of butter, for example. This recommendation has been rescinded, as vegetable margarine has been vilified for containing trans fat. But margarine and products like Crisco were developed in part due to the demand created by those who heeded the advice to abandon butter and lard.
As we were exhorted to reduce our meat consumption to save our hearts and to reduce our fat consumption in general to enhance our health, we sought out products that had little or no fat. We began to drink skim milk, putting milk through an extra step in the production process and creating an abundance of milk fat. We began to eat cookies, crackers and other foods that were made with less fat. In order to ensure adequate taste and texture manufacturers increased the amount of sugar and/or salt in these products. Thus consumers were eating less fat, but they were also eating more sugar. Industry began to turn the excess milk fats into cheese. Low fat products became thought of as healthy.
Even after it was generally recognized that fat was not the culprit, but refined carbohydrates were, organizations like the American Heart Association could not let go of their bias against fat. Now that we have learned that fat is not bad for us, but refined carbohydrates and hydrogenated oils are, we wag our fingers at commercially produced foods that label themselves low fat – and are usually high in sugar or salt to assure flavor – and forget that we used the marketplace to demand those low fat products.
Perhaps we should clarify the science and then use our considerable influence in the marketplace, voting with our pocketbooks, to demand healthier commercially produced foods. Our culture has changed in a way that has resulted in less “from scratch” cooking than in 1934. We use commercially produced foods. Asking people to completely change their lives and give up this convenience is not realistic. I, along with others, encourage people to cook. But most people lack the time and the inclination. So any suggestions in our quest to find and eat healthy foods have to reflect this reality. We must have a plan that is based on both good science and the reality of everyday life. And even if statistics tell us that obesity may be a bigger problem (forgive me) than it was before 1970, history tells us that it is obviously not a new problem in the US. If we remember that, perhaps we can remain rational, instead of alarmist, and develop a cogent and realist plan to address the problem of societal obesity.