Hydra Clown —
Trigger warning: Discussion of eating disorders, dietary choices, and weight loss.
Check out Tessa Shackleford’s Etsy page for more amazing, surreal artwork like the awesome illustration she did for this post.
Two weeks ago, my friend Leah Segedie, founder of Mamavation, confronted Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s, at a recent Shareholder’s Meeting about its aggressive advertising tactics aimed at children. I first met Leah during the Strong4Life debacle two years ago, and although I don’t agree with her emphasis on weight loss, I’ve always been impressed with the ferocity of her activism despite her gentle demeanor. Kind of like how the adorable Tasmanian devil has the strongest bite per unit of body mass.
So when I saw her mention on Facebook that she was meeting with Thompson, I immediately thought “Uh oh, McDonald’s is in for it now.”
Leah shared with Thompson and the shareholders that as a child she developed binge eating disorder and that she equated Happy Meals with (surprise, surprise) being happy. In response, Thompson laughed and said, “Happy Meals can’t give you an eating disorder my dear.”
Now, I’m not an expert on eating disorders, but from what I’ve read about them, I’m not so sure that Happy Meals actually cause eating disorders, but they certainly are capable of filling a void when an eating disorder develops. Compulsive overeating can be an emotional coping mechanism and “palatable food consumption” can trigger dopamine receptors, giving us an instant hit of happy naturally. Couple that with the not-so-subtle inducements of free toys, a meal made entirely of Happy and a jovial clown, and you’ve got everything you need to appeal to a child already struggling with emotional issues or an eating disorder.
Personally, I think advertising aimed at children is fucked up, regardless of who’s doing it, and nowhere is that more ruthless or relentless than McDonald’s. But as I read Leah’s account of delivering her message to the CEO of McDonald’s, I couldn’t help but feel despondent about the fight she’s waging.
Let’s say Leah’s successful and Don Thompson calls on McDonald’s to end advertising toward children. As Leah explained to me, she’s going after the market leader to create ripple effects. But when it comes to the broader fuckery of the American food system, McDonald’s is just one head on a very fucked up Hydra.
I’m not a big believer that fast food or even fast food advertising is a leading contributor to the increase in obesity rates, let alone the health effects that are typically associated with fatties. Reliance on fast food and processed food is a response to socioeconomic constraints that nudge people toward shortcuts in meal preparation. I’ve written about the social determinants of health before, which are various factors that influence what we typically think of as health “choices.”
As Jen wrote as far back as 2010 when San Francisco banned Happy Meals, McDonald’s is not the problem, it’s a symptom.
Although the wealthy and powerful have always had access to dietary shortcuts, the rabble only achieved access to dietary shortcuts after World War II, when processed food were celebrated as an aid to housewives back when a single income could support an entire family. These advances in food technology were followed by the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and Nixon’s agricultural subsidies of 1973, both of which suddenly created a whole new era of democratized access to regular, palatable foods, both whole and processed.
At the same time that the Food Industry began doing what all capitalist ventures do (i.e., profit by any means necessary), the economic realities facing families shifted drastically from the 1950s single-income household. As outlined in disturbing detail by Elizabeth Warren’s Two-Income Trap (a book I cannot recommend enough), just as women were finally untying the apron strings and joining the workforce, competition among middle class families for homes in desirable neighborhoods (typically defined by high-quality school districts) led to the burgeoning credit crisis that ultimately led to the Great Recession. But this period was also defined by a new reality that even two-income households were struggling to get by. Throw in an increase in single-parent households and suddenly time and money become precious commodities.
Enter the modern food system: efficient, cheap, highly palatable and ready to answer the day-to-day struggles of a middle class stretched to the limits.
That food system has enormous systemic problems, as I outlined in my post on a massive egg recall happened back in 2010. This food system has become the dietary gatekeeper for most American families, and has even taken over many of the conferences hosted by professional nutritionists and dietitians. For example, McDonald’s catered the California Dietetic Association’s last conference, leading to blistering criticism from members. And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has long been criticized for teaming with Coca-Cola, Hershey and Kraft. But again, this twisted synergy is the logical result of the socioeconomic reality in our country. Thirty years of federal austerity has slashed investment in science, so the natural response is for the food industry to fill that fiduciary gap and simultaneously buy legitimacy through dietary organization sponsorships.
But addressing the underlying causes of our corrupted food system is an even more daunting challenge than convincing McDonald’s not to advertise to children. If I were benevolent dictator, I would make one decrees that, I believe, would lead to long-term improvements to the social determinants of health which influence those “healthy choices” we want people to make. I would address the wage stagnation problem that has plagued American workers for decades. I strongly believe that America’s startling levels of income inequality contribute to the social determinants of health more than any other issue.
Of course, the reality is that Washington DC has entrenched interests guarding the wealth of 1% like their lives depend on it. As a result, we’re struggling just to push through the modest minimum wage hike that an overwhelming number of economists and Americans support.
We need American families to have more flexibility, both in terms of time and money, which will drastically improve their dietary choice. I don’t believe for one minute that most families prefer eating McDonald’s or heat-and-eat frozen meals over home-cooked, freshly-prepared meals. They’re simply stretched to the limit and are doing the best they can with the resources available to them.
But America is a bootstrappin’ society, believing that every decision is a matter of personal freedom and moral fortitude.
For example, I recently heard a fascinating interview on NPR’s Here & Now with Michael Pollan, the clean food guru who urges everyone to ditch processed foods. He makes some great points about obsessing over food, going so far as to warn of the dangers of orthorexia nervosa and nutritionism, which is ironic given his demonization of processed foods. But toward the end, host Robin Young points out that rather than the food industry addressing the problems Pollan advocates against, we are creating a two-tiered food system: one for the wealthy and one for the working class. Pollan’s response is quite revealing:
Yeah, and there is a danger that we will move toward, and to some extent we have moved toward, a system where some people can afford good food, and some people can’t. But I think it’s important not to confuse organic and local food with healthy food. You can eat really healthy, leaving meat aside, with just simply eating the real stuff… We also know that poor people who cook actually have healthier diets than rich people who don’t. And cooking is available to everyone. Yes, we have enormous amount of time pressure, but you don’t have to be rich to cook. All you need is a pan and some olive oil.
Now, there’s three things that bothers me about Pollan’s response: first, the wealthy aren’t just eating organic fruits and vegetables. They are able to access organic and whole processed foods as well. They can afford to eat and shop at higher end establishments like Whole Foods and Panera Bread (St. Louis Bread Company for true believers), which has recently announced it’s getting rid of artificial additives. And although Panera still has unhealthy choices, it’s far easier to find a palatable, healthy option there than at McDonald’s.
Second, and most importantly, Pollan’s dismissal of time constraints. This is the argument I hear most often: people just need to prioritize cooking. We’re also supposed to prioritize exercise. Oh, and sleep — let’s not forget the importance of getting a full night’s rest. Working families don’t get much out of this advice except, “You’re doing it wrong!” Yes, to cook you just need a pan and some olive oil, but you can’t just ignore time constraints with a swish of your wand. Time constraints are real, and even during the halcyon days of the 1950s, stay-at-home moms relied on processed foods to reduce the time constraints of dedicated domestic management.
In fact, during a previous NPR interview, Pollan acknowledged the difficulty of achieving his goals, saying, “You’re going to have to spend either more time or more money, and perhaps a little bit of both. And I think that’s just the reality. It’s really a question of priorities, and we have, in effect, devalued food. And what I’m arguing is to move it a little closer to the center of our lives, and that we are going to have to put more into it, but that it will be very rewarding if we do.” That sounds delightful, but shifting priorities is not always as easy as readjusting an Excel spreadsheet.
Finally, Pollan makes the case that you don’t have to eat organic fruits and vegetables to be healthy, which I’m glad he mentions. But in my conversation with Leah, she asked if I’d heard of atrazine, a pesticide sprayed on fruits and vegetables. Atrazine is one of a number of known endocrine disruptors (aka obesogens) that have been linked to increased weight and metabolic diseases. As explained by an atrazine advocacy group (as in, a group supporting the use of atrazine), this chemical is sprayed on a great number of our fruits and vegetables, including almonds, apples, avocados, blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, cherries, conifers, corn, cranberries, filberts, grain sorghum, grapefruit, grapes, guava, lemons, loganberries, macadamia nuts, nectarines, olives, oranges, peaches, pears, pecans, plums, popcorn, raspberries, strawberries, sugarcane, sweetcorn, and walnuts.
So even if you follow Pollan’s advice and eat non-organic fruits and vegetables, you may stay fat because of the endocrine disruptors that farms now rely on to mass produce whole foods.
And yet we continue to make fatness about choice and priorities, rather than these enormous socioeconomic factors that influence what we eat.
And ALL of this bullshit is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got the media, research institutions and the government encouraging this simplistic narrative of gluttonous fatties on one side, then turning around and promoting that exact same fucked up food system on the other. For example, I’ve written extensively about Huffington Post‘s coverage of fatness, including this nauseating juxtaposition:
Oh no, the cheeseburgers making us fat! But don’t worry because you’ll look stunning in this new swimwear line!
Or there’s this startling announcement that dominate HuffPo’s front page:
Yes, it’s so fucking grim that a third of the world is fat. Clearly HuffPo is taking a stand and will do everything in its power to encourage people to not be so fucking fat because —
What?!? Okay, so, HuffPo freaks out about global obesity rates on May 28 and then grins on June 5 to announce that “we’ve all been waiting for” the Taco Bell Quesarito (and by “we” they mean stoners). So, being fat is horrible, terrible and fear-inducing, but Taco Bell’s latest five-ingredient masterpiece is awesomesauce?
Or how about this one: the Canadian Medical Association Journal has published multiple articles on endocrine disruptors and the Sisyphean task of maintaining long-term weight loss. So it makes perfect sense that on its blog, it would publish an “article” by a primary care physician that opens with “Fat people eat more ice cream. That’s not an evidence based, statistically validated or methodologically robust observation. It just looks that way to me.” He goes on:
Now back to the anecdotal evidence. Just when I fancy an ice cream, and far away from international obesity data, it’s almost certain that I will meet some obese teen ambling along, slurping a giant ice cream cone. It puts me off. It is not politically correct, however, to imply that obesity is someone’s fault… Muffin tops are the norm. Jeans bursting at the button. Great wobbly bellies, man boobs, and enormous reinforced bras. Clinicians see the fat mountain daily. We already know about inflated clothes sizes and airplanes with larger seats. But, as a population, we seem blind to the need to re-calibrate portion size and challenge the nature of fast food.
Finally, we all know how First Lady Michelle Obama has used Let’s Move to reduce childhood obesity rates, going so far as to sidle up to The Biggest Loser not once, but twice to promote her health message. Meanwhile in 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture gives Domino’s Pizza $12 million to revamp its menu with more cheese.
All these efforts, all these messages provide a constant source of tension and conflict between promoting a broken, but highly-profitable food system and blaming fat people for being such undisciplined, self-loathing slobs who should just prioritize cooking those vegetables that are still fucking with their hormones.
So while I support Leah’s efforts to put a stop to advertising aimed at children, I’m far more pessimistic as to how much an advertising moratorium really will influence the health of children, let alone their weight.
The food industry hydra is enormous, adaptive and nearly impossible to kill. But I still admire anyone who takes sword in hand and is willing to take on such a Herculean task.