America's bad food choices are a result of our addiction to density

Beale's pure lard
CC BY 2.0 Steve Snodgrass

Humans are innately drawn to processed food because it is calorically dense, but are we really going to throw up our hands and blame all our health problems on biology?

The vegetable is not celebrated in America unless it’s made into a French fry dipped in sugary ketchup or some sliced tomatoes and lettuce on top of a hamburger. This is a serious problem because it means that 87 percent of Americans are not eating enough vegetables or an adequate variety of vegetables.

Some people blame availability for this national lack of interest in vegetables, citing not enough leafy greens being grown within the United States to feed everybody, or the very real ‘food deserts’ in certain urban areas where fresh produce is scarce.

But, as James McWilliams points out in the Pacific Standard, “I wrack my brain to recall the last time I’ve been in a market that did not have a vibrant display of carrots, broccoli, beans, and peppers.” I’d have to agree with him, and I shop at the most basic, no-frills supermarkets in rural Ontario where the growing season is depressingly short. There always are vegetables, even if they’re not pretty.

McWilliams points out that the problem isn’t so much lack of access to vegetables as it is an innate human addiction to density that makes it difficult to choose healthier options.

“Humans have a primal craving for density in all forms… In this respect, processed food—calorically dense and ephemerally delicious creations larded with refined starch, sugar, fat, and salt—follows the same arc of innovation that gave us nuclear energy, the internal combustion engine, and the microchip. The thing with food, though, is that we eat it. Thus density-driven progress leads not only to greater comfort, but to verifiable health problems as well.”

There is an innate paradox in the intersection of consumer culture and our human bodies. The two don’t match, which does not bode well for human health.

In a TreeHugger post several years ago, Lloyd pointed out that people instinctively go for the most calorie-laden options when they feel hungry (or, more tragically, if they have limited funds with which to purchase food for their families).

“This [25-pound] tub of lard costs about twenty-five bucks, contains 105,000 calories of food energy and 11,200 grams of saturated fat. That is enough food energy to feed a person for almost two months; a dollar buys you 4200 calories. A study quoted by Michael Pollan found that a dollar buys you 1200 calories in potato chips, but only 250 calories of carrots.”

While I understand that it’s difficult to override biology, I don’t agree with McWilliam that “eating a healthy diet today is about as difficult as learning to write with the opposite hand.” It’s also about habit and instilling an appreciation for fresh, nutritious, and clean-tasting vegetables in children from a young age. I love the occasional bowl of potato chips, but that doesn’t make me appreciate oven-roasted carrots any less. There’s a time and place for both.

It all boils down to educating a child’s palate, primarily at home, but also at school if need be (much as the French do with their national lunch program that introduces all foods, including stinky cheeses, to preschoolers). Humans can be taught to love vegetables as much as calorie-dense foods. I know because I am one of them.

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