Sunday, July 7, 2019

Retrospective #141: “…the ultimate oxymoron: diet food”

An article by Jacques Peretti in “The Guardian,” brought to my attention by now defunct blogger Beth Mazur, 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 reasoned – and a worthwhile read, especially if your BMI is in the range of 25 to 27.
Peretti begins, “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…actually eat. Pure science on a plate. The food, in short, that is making the planet fat.
Then, “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.”
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.”
We got fat by eating high calorie, highly processed (carbohydrate) foods. 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 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.
Peretti’s “scenario two,” the first being the food industry’s reaction to obesity, 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 committee in Geneva that created a report. The WHO report re-defined obesity: the cut-off point for being overweight went from a BMI of 27 to a BMI of 25. This change wasn’t based on any scientific evidence at all. The authors essentially looked at the data and just arbitrarily decided to 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.
The people who funded the WHO report were drug companies. And did they ever ask the authors to push any specific agenda, Peretti asked? "Not at all," they replied. It wasn’t necessary. The WHO report was all they needed.
Peretti concludes with this: “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 both the food industry and the diet industry throughout their 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.”

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