An article by Jacques Peretti in “The Guardian,” brought to my attention recently by Beth Mazur at Weight Maven, used this construct to describe one aspect of the symbiosis that has developed in the food industry in the last sixty years. It’s a provocative piece – well researched and well reasoned – and a worthwhile read, especially if your BMI is in the range of 25 to 27, as I’ll explain. First, I need to explicate the symbiosis. Symbiosis requires two interactive, mutually supporting parts.
Peretti describes he first part thusly: “When you walk into a supermarket, what do you see? Walls of highly calorific, intensely processed food, tweaked by chemicals for maximum "mouth feel" and "repeat appeal" (addictiveness). This is what most people in Britain actually eat. Pure science on a plate. The food, in short, that is making the planet fat.” (For more on how foods are designed to be addictive, see the NYT article, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”).
The second part follows: “And next to this? Row upon row of low-fat, light, lean, diet, zero, low-carb, low-cal, sugar-free, "healthy" options, marketed to the very people made fat by the previous aisle and now desperate to lose weight. We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposites, but in fact, there is a deep, symbiotic relationship between the two.”
Diet food then is an oxymoron because it is something you eat (to nourish your body) but which is intended for you to lose weight. How did this come about? Peretti explains: “When obesity as a global health issue first came on the radar, the food industry sat up and took notice. Some of the world's food giants opted to do something both extraordinary and stunningly obvious: they decided to make money from obesity, by buying into the diet industry.” No surprise there, is there?
In Peretti’s words, they “squared the seemingly impossible circle. And we bought it. Highly processed diet meals emerged, often with more sugar in them than the originals, but marketed for weight loss, and here is the key get-out clause, "as part of a calorie-controlled diet". You can even buy a diet Black Forest gateau if want.” How true, how true, how sad indeed it is.
We got fat by eating high calorie (high fat), highly processed (carbohydrate) food. So, what happened? The result, as we all know: “Government, health experts and, surprisingly, the food industry were brought in to consult on what was to be done. They all agreed that the blame lay with the consumer – fat people needed to go on diets and exercise. We needed to slim down by eating lower calorie (low fat), still highly processed (carbohydrate) food, but as part of a calorie-controlled (restricted-calorie, low-fat) diet. The plan didn't work. In the 21st century, people are getting fatter than ever.” How come?
Regular readers here know that what went wrong is that “government, health experts and the food industry” came up with the wrong prescription. The low fat, restricted-calorie diet of highly processed, carbohydrate-loaded foods is what makes us fat, even if we exercise our butts off for hours at a time. But you’ve all heard this from me ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Peretti takes the story in a slightly different direction, which I think is quite novel and worthy of consideration.
His “scenario two,” the food industry’s reaction to obesity being the first, was this: “But, seen purely in terms of profit, the biggest market wasn't just the clinically obese (those people with a BMI of 30-plus), whose condition creates genuine health concerns, but the billions of ordinary people worldwide who are just a little overweight, and do not consider their weight to be a significant health problem.” “That was all about to change,” he said. “A key turning point was 3 June 1997. On this date the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened an expert consultation in Geneva that formed the basis for a report that defined obesity not merely as a coming social catastrophe, but as an ‘epidemic’.”
The author was one of the world's leading obesity experts, Professor Philip James, who in 1995 had set up a body called the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF). The WHO report re-defined obesity: the cut-off point for being overweight went from a BMI of 27 to a BMI of 25. Quoting Joel Guerlin, a US author who has examined the work produced by Met Life’s chief statistician Louis Dublin, this change “wasn’t based on any scientific evidence at all.” "Dublin essentially looked at his data and just arbitrarily decided that he would take the desirable weight for people who were aged 25 and apply it to everyone." Nevertheless, overnight, millions of people around the globe would shift from the "normal" to the "overweight" category.
Oh, and, by the way, where did the funding for the WHO report come from, Peretti wondered? He asked Professor James, who replied, "Oh, that's very important. The people who funded the IOTF were drugs companies…They used to give me cheques for about 200,000 (pounds) a time. And I think I had a million or more." And did they ever ask him to push any specific agenda, Peretti asked? "Not at all," James replied. That wasn’t necessary. The WHO report was all they needed.
Peretti concludes with this sad scenario: “There now exist two clear and separate markets. One is the overweight, many of whom go on endless diets, losing and then regaining the weight, and providing a constant revenue stream for the both the food industry and the diet industry throughout their adult lives. The other market is the genuinely obese, who are being cut adrift from society, having been failed by health initiative after health initiative from government.”Readers of this column know that there is a happy alternative for both the see-saw dieters and the truly obese: Low Carb.