On Eating: Draft

On Tuesday, May 21, 1968, at 10 p.m., CBS aired a TV documentary called Hunger in America. Featuring correspondents Charles Kuralt and David Culhane, Hunger in America gave the middle-class some of its first glimpses of the devastating effects that malnutrition, hunger and starvation had on the poor. Outrage followed. Soon, public cries for expanded federal food assistance programs swept into Washington, and the District answered.

Just two months after the program aired, the U.S. Senate appointed George McGovern, a democrat out of South Dakota, to chair the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Under McGovern, the committee created laws that expanded food assistance and encouraged the public to “eat more” (Nestle 38). With a wave of popular support behind them, McGovern and his committee forayed into other areas of nutrition and health.

In 1969, the committee helped organize the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. It was Richard Nixon’s first White House Conference as president. “Until this moment in our history as a nation, the central question has been whether we as a nation would accept the problem of malnourishment as a national responsibility,” he said in his opening remarks. “That moment is past. On May 6 I asserted to the Congress that ‘the moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself. For all time.’ Speaking for this administration, I not only accept the responsibility—I claim the responsibility.”

Most of the panels at the conference addressed that responsibility, from what could be done by farmers and the food industry to what could be done by community action groups. Panel II-3, though, focused on the opposite: adults in affluent society.

Chaired by Ancel Keys, then director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, Panel II-3 found that the affluent had developed a society characterized by “overconsumption of calories” and “underexercising” (report 15). Such habits, the panel argued, could lead to excess weight, atherosclerosis and other degenerative diseases. Obese individuals in particular had increased susceptibility to diabetes, hypertension, angina, sudden death, gall bladder disease, arthritis, pulmonary dysfunction and social disabilities. “Many,” Panel II-3 stated in its report, “if not all of these hazards to health can be reduced by weight reduction, by either a decrease in food activity, an increase in activity or both (report 18).”

Keys knew what he was talking about. In 1959, he and his wife Margaret published the heart-healthy cookbook Eat Well and Stay Well, complete with six dietary guidelines for the prevention of coronary heart disease. Getting exercise and favoring vegetables and fruits made the cut, but topping the list at rule number 1 was “Do not get fat, if you are fat, reduce (Nestle 39).”

Throughout the next two decades, the American Heart Association advised people to reduce calories from fat and intake of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. And what’s the best way to reduce intake? Stop eating. In 1976, the McGovern committee created a new hearings series, “Diet Related to Killer Diseases.” “At the very first of these hearings, more than 30 witnesses described how eating too much of the wrong kinds of food would increase risks for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and obesity,” writes Marion Nestle. “‘Eat less’ recommendations had become inevitable (40).’”

Since the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, the number of conditions linked to obesity has only grown: sleep apnea, asthma, impotence, depression, kidney stones, infertility, complications in surgery and with anesthesia. Even Alzheimer’s is now considered an obesity-associated disease (Library of Congress). And with 35.7% of Americans clocking in as obese, “eat less” sounds like pretty terrific advice.

But where do consumers even start? Amanda Holliday, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told NPR’s food blog, The Salt, “some [people] feel overwhelmed by the choices. Others feel defeated by having to choose something healthy.” Luckily, grocery stores have started devoting entire aisles to low-calorie, low-sodium, low-fat “health foods.” American consumers no longer have to worry about preparing their own good-for-you cuisine. It now comes pre-packaged. And it’s available right in your local Superfresh. Gone are the days of having to travel to the $5 an apple health food store. Now, a trip to buy cat litter and toilet paper can also fill your shopping cart with light instant oatmeal and lean frozen black bean and cheese enchiladas.

[Actual grocery store aisle.]

Even better for the consumer told to eat less are the nutrient-dense shakes, bars and powders that can replace entire meals. “Special K™ Chocolate Protein Shakes are the perfectly portable, on-the-go, way to grab breakfast (lunch, or dinner)!” Kellogg boasts of its product. “With 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber* (*contains 5g total fat per serving), this chocolate shake is a delicious way to satisfy your hunger and help you lose weight.” Such meal-replacement products are often marketed towards Americans whose schedules don’t allow them to sit at a table and eat. Not only do they replace the actual food in a meal, they allow consumers to replace mealtime with working, shopping or driving.

It’s the promise of weight-loss, though, that really drives the product. Kellogg even has its own “Special K Challenge,” designed to help consumers shed poundage. All you have to do is replace two daily meals with any “delicious variety” of Special K cereals, protein shakes and protein meal bars, and snack on their protein snack bars, cereal bars, pastry crisps, cracker chips and crackers. Replacing meals with two cereal bars, Kellogg says, results in an average 4.8 pounds gone. Average waist circumference reduction is 1.3 inches. [Overall revenue for Kellogg Company for 2012 was $14.2 billion.]

But Kellogg isn’t the only company to build a market around weight loss. Weight Watchers, Atkins and South Beach all have their own food products. After all, there are 108 million dieters in America, and 6.3% of them want pre-packaged or diet company food. 4.9% want meal replacements (timesunion). The consumption of meal replacements dropped by about 2% in 2010, attributed largely to the economic recession. But a study by Marketdata predicts that market gains will bring the value of the diet food delivery industry segment back up to more than $3 billion by 2014. Commercial weight loss programs are currently estimated to be worth $3.42 billion, with a 2.7% average annual growth expected to 2016.

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