Why do we eat bad food?

During our Food and Faith panel discussion at the Wild Goose Festival one of the panelists remarked, “Poor people don’t eat badly because they’re stupid.  They eat badly because they’re poor.”

Of course a comment like that (equating being uninformed with being stupid) tends to kill any discussion of the importance of food, dietary and nutrition education.  After a statement like that, to attribute poor food decisions to anything other than poverty is to risk being construed as believing poor people are stupid.

I’m sure there are plenty of poor people who are stupid, just as they are plenty of stupid rich people.  But a lack of awareness of the consequences of food choices isn’t “stupidity.”

Although it is commonly believed that it costs a lot of money to eat a healthy diet, that just isn’t true.  In fact, a healthy diet is less expensive than a diet of health-destroying food.  Obesity-inducing foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants cost more (both immediately and in the long term) than rice, beans, frozen vegetables and many other healthy staples.  And of course cheaper still are fresh veggies from a backyard garden.

One of the speakers on the panel was Olufemi Lewis, who runs Ujamaa Freedom Market in Asheville.  Having improved her own health through good food choices, she was distressed by “the candy bus,” a mobile convenience store that comes into low-income communities in Asheville selling candy, cigarettes, and junk food.  She founded her organization to offer a healthy food alternative.  Their bus brings fresh vegetables and healthy food into those same communities. But when they began coming, no one came to buy the vegetables.  They got their food from the candy bus instead.  Access to affordable healthy food just wasn’t enough.  Education was needed.

I’ve blogged before about a project in Philadelphia that brought a fresh food market into a food desert, only to find that no one came to buy food there.

Elvis Presley was fabulously wealthy, but died young in part because of a diet of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

My guess is that if a person who regularly eat at KFC won the lottery, that person wouldn’t suddenly start shopping for organic food at the farmer’s market.  He’d just eat more KFC.  Which brings to mind this hilarious scene from Talladega Nights.  Notice how this family ate once they were wealthy.

I’m convinced that there are three primary reasons our society eats so badly.  First, we’ve come to prefer the taste of fatty, sugary, salty processed foods and we lack the dietary discipline to avoid such foods or eat them only in moderation.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the manufacturers of these foods spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertising them and manipulating our behavior.  Secondly, bad food is usually more convenient.  It takes little or no time to prepare and for those who live in food deserts it may be the only food reasonably available. Third, and most important in my opinion, is a lack of knowledge about good food choices.  By and large we don’t understand and appreciate the adverse health consequences of eating badly.  We don’t know where to get good food or how to prepare it.  We falsely believe that eating healthy food is too expensive.

As a society we are overfed and undernourished.  We are the first society in the history of the world to have that problem.  While it is certainly good that we no longer have to fear starvation, we must learn sensible diets or we’re only substituting one set of food-related health problems for another.

To call for better food education is not to label anyone as “stupid.”  The truth is that a large segment of the population, poor and otherwise, needs to be better educated about diet, nutrition and food choices.  A strong argument could be made that to ignore that reality would be stupid.

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35 comments on “Why do we eat bad food?

  1. I really can understand the appeal of junk food– and that’s me, food politics and fermentation blogger with pretty high knowledge and quite experienced cooking skills! Last night my kids and I sat waiting for my husband to arrive at the train station, eating “Chip Butties” with ketchup– chips (french fries) on white bread. I was in carb-grease-cheap food heaven! My kids couldn’t believe their luck! I think it takes a lot to fight bad food, at a personal, social, economic,cultural level– all of it. I have nothing conclusive to say except tastes do get set in the mind/body, the ease of junk is very appealing, and maybe it’s largely about a continuum that we need to shift, rather than absolutes… and a lot of that work is political I think (for instance, limits to junk food marketing) as well as educational. But no solution can stand alone to a clearly complicated social conundrum. Thanks for writing a thought-provoking blog.

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    • Bill says:

      An occasional snack is one thing, a diet based on health-destroying food is another. I’ve been able to edit most crappy food out of my life and I don’t sense any loss from that. But on these hot summer days I do enjoy a bowl of ice cream now and then, for example. I don’t see any problem with that. Moderation is the key and too many of us don’t seem to understand that anymore.

      I’m convinced that people by and large want to preserve their health and enjoy good food. There is no single solution but I’m convinced that what is most needed is education and information. Sometimes all it takes is to convince people to just eat some good food. The taste will do the rest. 🙂

      Thanks for your work and for the thoughtful comment.

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  2. ain't for city gals says:

    excellent post….It takes a lot of effort and time to eat good food. Sometimes I feel like I spend my entire day in the kitchen but if that is what it takes so be it. I am far from perfect on this but I do try my best to learn and that is what it frustrating to me….people don’t seem to even care enough to read a book about it. I just finished reading The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard …very interesting.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m not familiar with that book but I’ll add it to my ever growing list.

      In the last few decades we’ve relegated cooking to drudgery that modern life has made unnecessary. But the tide is turning now I think. More and more people are choosing to take the time to prepare good food, realizing that we got our priorities wrong along the way.

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  3. shoreacres says:

    First, there’s that ages-old problem: the essential tension between knoweldge and will. I think of my friend, diagnosed with lung cancer, who said, “Of course I know smoking is going to kill me. But I like to smoke. Hand me that pack of cigarettes.” He wasn’t stupid or uneducated, he just wanted to smoke.

    And there’s the skepticism that’s a natural response to being told this or that is going to kill us, then hearing, ten (or even five) years later, “Oops. We were wrong about that. It’s really this you need to avoid.” See: butter, eggs, coffee, chocolate, red wine, and so on. A lot of my friends have stopped paying one lick of attention to so-called “healthy eating guidelines” because they no longer have any trust in the people publishing them.

    Beyond that, one of the first skills a child learns is to tune out a nagging mother, and a lot of the let’s-all-eat-better folks are nags, to the nth degree. i’ll listen to advice or information about food, but when someone starts to nag, as one of my friends can, I get this overwhelming urge for a double Whopper with cheese.

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    • Bill says:

      Of course education won’t change everyone. There will always be those who choose to eat badly no matter what. Let’s just hope we reduce the number of such people, as the cost of their health care ends up being transferred to the rest of us and at the rate we’re going threatens to sink the entire nation financially. There just isn’t enough money to pay for the resulting health care costs if the trends continue.

      I’m encouraged by what we see with smoking. Sure there will always be folks like your friend. I know some folks like that too. But as a society we have drastically reduced smoking and our collective health has benefited. That benefit came from increasing the public awareness of the dangers of smoking.

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  4. Lynda says:

    Your article comes at an interesting time for me. I have been on a mission to eat more simply and to avoid packaged products. This means less chemicals and additives in my diet, as well as less cost for our groceries. When I shop I am overwhelmed by the many overpriced, and over processed meals in bags there are in the supermarket these days. You can buy these chemical gastronomic catastrophes in single servings or in family packs. My shopping is now all about the outside isles of the store: Vegetables, fruits, meats. I visit the inside isles for dried beans, rice and spices. I buy organic when I can afford it (on sale) and scrub or peal the rest. Local fruits and vegetables, in season are usually far less expensive than the prepared and packaged items. Better yet, grow your own… like you do!

    So, did you hear the report on the news this week that poor eating, and the desire for junk foods is genetic? Puh-leeze! http://www.medhelp.org/healthy-living/articles/Your-Brain-on-Junk-Food/691

    Our bad eating habits are learned at the dinner table when we are young. As well, children in households with two working parents, or one parent households, are often the the ones who eat out at fast food places the most. I feel for the tired and overworked parents, but the choice of convenience is clearly an unhealthy one, and results in an unhealthy standard of what is good to eat.

    Don’t even get me started on all the food engineering that goes on to make the junk we eat “taste good.” Our pallets and brain are becoming desensitized to plain foods prepared simply and healthfully at home.

    When DuPont coined the phrase, “Better living through chemistry” I don’t think they were imagining enhanced chemical food flavors. 😛

    YIKES: Off my soapbox.

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    • Lynda says:

      NOTE: My comments on the parental food choice to eat fast food for convenience are based on the many comments I received from parents when I was teaching about food groups and healthy eating choices in my classroom. Some were happy about the required lessons and some resented them. Some days it got interesting before and after school…

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    • Bill says:

      Well said Lynda. What is happened to our health over the last 20 years, thanks mostly to processed food, is shocking. If any disease was spreading as rapidly as obesity, diabetes and related illnesses caused by poor food choices there would be a massive campaign to fight it on an unprecedented scale. That hasn’t happened of course in large part because the purveyors of this kind of food have so much power, money and influence.

      But despite that there is a growing grassroots movement that is saying no to industrialized food. I choose to believe that we’re going to win. The alternative is simply unacceptable.

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  5. I think our love affair with fast food can be attributed to several causes, Bill. Heavy marketing, convenience and affordability are three. And then there is the fact that it tastes good. It’s also consistent. A McD burger is a McD burger wherever you buy it. Our extensive use of the automobile was also an important factor in its early development. And finally, it becomes addictive, a form of comfort food, if you will. We have at least a couple of generations now that kicked off their childhood with fast food.

    So breaking free is a tough nut to crack. I think it is even harder than tobacco, even though tobacco is as addictive as cocaine. I spent much of my professional career involved in the tobacco wars. Simple education had minimal impact. We battled the industry on numerous fronts. Our greatest success finally came through the issue of second hand smoke. It wasn’t how your smoking impacted your personal health, it is how your smoking impacted other people’s health.

    Fast food doesn’t have a similar argument. I think our best hope, beyond draconian efforts that most of us wouldn’t support, is to increase the cost of fast food so it loses its cost value. And we do have a good argument here. The people who work in fast food joints deserve a decent wage and benefits for their efforts. When they get these wages and benefits, the cost of fast food will increase. Simple economics will make other food choices more viable.

    Curt

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    • Bill says:

      One good way to start would be to eliminate the subsidies that go to industrial commodity agriculture that make the components of fast food so cheap. What many people don’t realize is that much of the cost of these corn-based foods has already been prepaid by the taxpayers. Likewise much of the cost of treating the illnesses that result. All of these costs have been externalized, leaving the illusion that this kind of food is “cheap.”

      Convenience and addiction are definitely culprits here. I don’t think cost is as significant a reason as it is made out to be. A person could buy the ingredients for a week’s worth of breakfasts for what they’ll pay for one breakfast at McDonalds. But the McD breakfast can be obtained at a drive up window and eaten in your car while on the way to work.

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      • I am certainly for eliminating subsidies for large agriculture. That should have been done decades ago. As for the health argument, I used that in 1986 when I put together California’s tax on tobacco. (The tobacco industry spent 25 million dollars trying to defeat the effort but we won– and kicked off one of the most extensive public health campaigns in history.) –Curt

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    • Joanna says:

      That is an interesting point Curt, that people only started taking notice of the harm when they realised it affected others, particularly their children I suppose. This would explain the success of Jamie Oliver’s campaign to get healthy school meals on the menu. If we pitch the problem too far into the future, it will not affect us, but show the harm we are doing to our own children and the thought starts to take root that this is not what we should be doing.

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      • You would think the school lunch program would be a no-brainer, and yet it’s a battle. Still, it’s a lot easier to tackle than the fast food problem.

        On the fast food front, here’s an idea that would never float: tax the calories. 🙂 An 800 calorie hamburger would have twice the tax of a 400 calorie burger. That would get folks excited. LOL I suspect that isn’t the problem, however. It’s probably the lower calorie dollar burgers that are eaten in vast quantities. –Curt

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      • Joanna says:

        I think you are right about the lower calorie burgers being the worse, as that requires more chemical input. I would rather eat genuine fat than the sort of thing I could have concocted in my Chemistry degree days

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  6. Sophie says:

    Eating fresh, healthy food means taking regular trips to wherever you can buy it from: the supermarket, farmer’s market, wherever. I used to live in a place where the nearest supermarket was a 20-30 minute walk away. I didn’t have a car and of course, you can only carry so many shopping bags at one time. If you eat fresh food, you’re possibly looking at shopping for it more than once a week. Maybe it;s cheaper but it’s also a lot more time-consuming than buying whatever you can at the convenience store around the corner, or dialling for a takeaway. things will fill you up fast and comfort you.

    Education is definitely important. Here in the UK we have Jamie Oliver, who has recipe books featuring low budget recipes and meals that can be ready in under 30 minutes. We also have A Girl Called Jack, who made a name for herself as a mother on welfare who created very low cost recipes and shared them on her blog. She’s now very famous (and off welfare).

    I think it needs to be a combination of accessibility and education.

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    • Bill says:

      Jamie Oliver is a food celebrity here too–or at least he used to be. I saw a video once of him explaining to a woman how the food she was giving her children (the whole family was obese and in poor health) was killing them. It was moving to see the truth of that statement dawn on her.

      I haven’t heard of A Girl Called Jack, but good for her. Trying to educate people on how to eat a healthy diet on a food-stamps budget is something we’ve been a part of too.

      I think you’re right about the combination of accessibility and education. One without the other won’t do much good. It takes both.

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  7. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, slowly over time we as a society have been wooed away from healthy food. Your statement, “bad food is usually more convenient” is right on target. We have traded time for unhealthy food choices. Kitchen time makes for healthy eating. My single life mentality must be a bit old generation. I have always fixed my own meals at home. More so since I’ve been retired. I find the whole process of fixing, eating, and cleaning up relaxing and enjoyable but it all takes time. One major meal takes about one and a half hours. I happen to like eating leisurely and not in to a big bite, two chomps, and slug it down with a gulp of soda. I have trained a few friends to eat slowly when they happen to eat with me. I’m of the opinion that speed eating fast food is more than double bad for the digestion. It does seem to be difficult to disconnect from the flavor enhanced food products of today. My own experience with soda told me all about addiction. I drank two to three cherry codes a day some years ago. When my stomach started complaining, I went cold turkey on the soda. After a few months, I tried one just to satisfy what I thought was a craving. Oh my gosh, it gagged me with the sweet taste. I’ve never went back. Other things temp me like Doritos but that’s why I don’t keep them in the house.

    Have a great day continuing to educate others.

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    • Bill says:

      I had a similar experience. I used to love McDonald’s sausage biscuits. I probably ate a thousand of them. But once I quit them and purged that kind of greasy food from my diet I no longer had any desire for them. Now the thought of eating one of them is somewhat nauseating.

      We condition our taste buds to enjoy fatty, sugary foods. Once we condition ourselves to more wholesome food those kinds of foods just won’t be desirable. Even if we eat them, we won’t want to as much of it as we used to. Eating bad food is a habit we form and it is a habit we can break.

      One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in trying to help people improve their diets is overcoming their false belief that life will be less enjoyable without junk food.

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  8. EllaDee says:

    I agree with your post and every single comment to it, but why do we eat bad food? Because it is more controllable & profitable by giant corporations than fresh food. Otherwise they would embrace & market it, and our diet would revert somewhat as it was before the evolution of the military‐industrial complex et al.

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  9. Great post and discussion! I second all of the above and couldn’t agree more that the education component is so important but also think that it is especially crucial for the children – gotta get ’em while they are young! Farm to School programs, veggie gardens in schools, community pea-patch programs that have outings for children, farm tours geared towards children like the one you recently hosted – these are key to winning the hearts and minds (and tummies) of the next generation. And there’s a bonus of getting these kids outside with their hands in the dirt – now they are making a connection with nature.
    Maybe like the secondhand smoke angle Curt mentioned above – there’s a way to get people to stand up and take notice of the affect it is having on their children if not themselves.

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    • Bill says:

      I really like it when a post generates a lot of thoughtful comments, as this one did. The comments end up being better and more informative than the post itself.

      I couldn’t agree more with you about kids. It’s scary how disconnected young people are from food. We had a group of “at risk” kids out to the farm last year and one of them, a sensitive and sweet boy, didn’t know that chicken was from a living animal. Friends of ours are trying to help a poor family in town and the kids in the family get all their food (other than at school) from a convenience store. They’re in elementary school and they’d never seen or tasted a banana. They refused to eat it.

      One of the group of kids that visited our farm with the First Lady have a garden in their housing project, thanks to a dedicated volunteer who mentors them. Usually when I ask kids touring the farm to name their favorite food they answer with things like pizza. Those kids, on the other hand, were saying things like “broccoli” and “tomatoes.” That’s because they’d come to love things they grew themselves.

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  10. Joanna says:

    I have been taking a look at your blog since you made a comment on mine Bill. It looks like we have some similar points of view, especially regarding the harm of fast food. I lived in Colorado for two years and nearly cried when I went into Walmart and saw the state of the fresh food in there. I wondered how we were going to survive for the next few years, if this was all there was on offer. Fortunately we found a good supermarket with fresh food that didn’t look like it had been on the shelf for weeks, but I certainly found it harder to eat healthily in the States than in Europe. I had to travel further for a start.

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    • Bill says:

      A couple of years ago we had an intern from Saudi Arabia. She told us that when she came to the States she was astonished both at how much food was available in supermarkets and at how bad it was. She found most of the produce to be practically inedible. In her country people go the market (our equivalent of the farmers market) for most of their food, going to the supermarket only for things that aren’t available fresh and local. I expect that’s true in most places in the world.

      It’s shameful that here in the States we have allowed ourselves to become addicted to tasteless, health-destroying “food.” In our culture most people prioritize convenience over taste and nutrition.

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  11. avwalters says:

    Education is needed. Better access is needed. These are part of the explanation for why poor people eat bad food. What excuse for the rest of us?

    Note that “food science” has evolved to give us the perfect balance of fat, sugar and salt–perfect if your motivation is marketing a junk food addiction. We all need to do better.

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    • Bill says:

      Exactly. The idea that poor nutrition is a problem only of poor people is just flat out wrong. Disposable income and access to healthy food does not necessarily (or even often) translate to a good diet.

      And you’re also right that food scientists are engineering food to give it properties that cause us to binge and gorge on it. Sugar, salt and fat are the key components of that, along with the additives that create just the right “mouth feel.” It’s well-documented.

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  12. Excellent post. And you hit bulls-eye w/ the lotto winner and KFC. I have given a great deal of thought to the ques you post. Actually, have you seen…

    myholistictable.wordpress.com ? Was my original blog, a seed of a book. I had no idea the Journey readers would swerve me on a different path. =)

    Eating is spiritual. As simple and deep as that. There is a whole spiritual, emotional drive behind the choices we make when it comes to how we treat our body. Because food is pleasure, we get into addictions (counterfeit pleasure) and I’d even say idolatry. Worshiping our stomach, not letting God satisfy our hunger with the healthful bounty of His provisions.

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    • Bill says:

      I so agree with you. I think our ancestors recognized the spirituality of eating, but the truth of that has been lost with the spread of industrial food and the busyness of modern life. Shockingly, something like 20% of meals are now eaten in our cars.

      I had not seen your old blog but I really like it. 🙂

      Like

  13. Wonderful discussion post, Bill!

    Like

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