January is Poverty Awareness Month. Especially this year, many families are experiencing poverty and must rely on food banks and federal food assistance, some for the first time ever. The stress of financial uncertainty takes a toll on a person’s health, and many people struggle to manage conditions such as high blood pressure and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that often kills.
Last week, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey caused a bit of a firestorm on the issue of nutrition and health when he said, “Americans won’t need healthcare if they just eat right.”
While clearly well meaning, Mackey was criticized for the statement, perhaps because he runs one of the most expensive grocery stores in America. Yet Mackey raises the important point that lousy eating is indeed part of why people have persistent problems with obesity and obesity-related diseases.
There are vast disagreements about what constitutes healthy eating. Many food organizations, celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and talk show hosts like to push the idea that eating right means eating expensive. According to these rules, shopping at posh grocery stores, with wine bars, sushi counters, and loads of expensive, organic, non-GMO, free trade, humanely caught, free-range food is the way to go if you want to be truly healthy.
Yet, this message goes beyond mere snobbery. Some even suggest consumers are doing great harm to themselves by eating less expensive, non-organic food and promote the idea that organic food is superior because it is free of pesticides (not true), that it’s healthier (not true), and that it’s better for the environment (again, not true).
This consumer guilt-tripping and total indifference to struggling families sums up the elitist food philosophy. Aspirational food shopping is as normal as aspirational shoe shopping these days, and it has taken hold among even the poorest consumers.
This misinformation comes at a high cost — to consumer health. A study by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research showed fear-based food marketing (for example, telling people that canned food is bad or that they should only buy organic food and milk) is creating so much anxiety about affordable food that poor consumers are actually choosing to pass on these healthier items. Another very similar peer-reviewed study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found consumers often face information overload and conflicting messages about fresh produce, which can drive them away from affordable and healthier food choices.
Sadly, none of this matters to those vested in the pseudo-religion surrounding organic food. Peddlers of high-end organics ignore science and sound health advice in service of a higher cause.
Adding to the confusion are the mixed messages on obesity, a cause recently taken up by the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine. They deserve some credit, though. It is no minor feat to shift years of messaging that anorexia is beautiful to the equally dangerous message that morbid obesity is both beautiful, healthy, and sexy (and if men don’t agree, they’re sexist!).
Yet, if you’ve ever known a truly morbidly obese person and have seen his or her physical limitations, you’d know the cruel folly of Cosmopolitan’s message. Healthy eating and treating overweight and obese people kindly are certainly worthy goals. But lying to the public about the dangers of obesity and promoting an expensive, organic-only food orthodoxy about food won’t help people improve their lives or diets.
This month, focus on more important issues, like the fact that many people are facing poverty and could use some help getting the nutrients they need. Give to your local food banks and food drives (make sure to check for expiration dates on food to be donated) and encourage people to ignore nonsense food trends that do far more harm than good.
Julie Gunlock serves as the director for the Center of Progress and Innovation at Independent Women’s Forum.