I've written a lot about the politics of the way food is discussed, but very little about the politics of food. I think to understand 'the obesity epidemic' you have to understand the politics of food as well as the politics of the discourse around food (yes I used the word 'discourse' in my first paragraph - I imagine it'll be a long post).
So far when I've been talking about the discourse around food I've generally been talking about individual foods and how they're discussed. In this post I'm going to talk more about diet. Just to be clear in this post when I say 'diet' I don't mean weight-loss diets, but the sum total of what we eat from week to week.
There are a number of assumptions that underpin 'the obesity epidemic' - one of which is that our diet has got worse over the last 50 years. Some people, such as the chair of Fight the Obesity Epdiemic, believe that our diet has got worse since the depression, since in the 1930s people grew their own vegetables. But I'll give most people who promote 'the obesity epidemic' the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don't think we'd be in better health if we died of starvation.
It was a reasonably standard article on obesity in the Dominon Post that made me question this assumption:
It's not difficult to see why obesity is becoming such a problem. We no longer walk or exercise nearly as much as we used to and our eating habits have deteriorated. What did people eat in New Zealand 50 years ago? Would it past muster with those who hark back to a golden era.
To answer this question I turned to Towards Tomorrow: A Guide for the New Zealand Homemaker, an economics school text book published in 1968. Here's what it had to say about fat:
The fats used in the average New zealand diet are butter, bacon fat, dripping and lard.and meat:
Meat is the protein food most used in New Zealand and we are among the world's greatest meat eaters because our country is so agriculturally rich. Many overseas visitors are surprised to find that meat is often included in every meal of the day.So 40 years ago the New Zealand diet included red meat 2-3 times a day, and most cooking was done in animal fat.
Poultry has grown in popularity over recent years. Like meat it is a complete protein, but it is mroe expensive than meat. (There is alarm at the use of hormones to develop birds rapidly because these hormones could affect humans.) Poultry is a delicious 'special occasion' food.
My first thought was that either people are lying to us about what a healthy diet is, or our diet has improved considerably since the 1960s.* My second thought is that the main problem is that it's ridiculous to talk about 'the New Zealand' diet. For discussion of diet to have any meaning at all, we have to look at class, and how the amount of money you have has effects your diet.
In our society we don't make food for nutritional value, we don't make food to nuture us, we don't make food to promote long life and we don't make food to fee ourselves.
We make food to make a profit.
Every decision those producing food make about what goes into that food (starting way back at the genetically modified soy-bean seed, to when soya-oil ends up in a low-fat biscuit substitute) is made based on the need to make a profit. Nutrition is generally only a consideration into whether or not food makes a profit if the government has legislated about the nutirtional content of certain foods, or if it can help sell the product (more on this later).
There have been changes in food over the last 50 years, and those changes have been driven by the food industry's requirement to make a profit. I may be wrong, and I'm happy to discuss this with people who know more (or less) than me, but I think the most important change has been that calories have gotten cheaper, but other nutrition have gotten more expensive.** To give a really basic example, if the amount of vitamin C in an apple has halved, then even if apples have gone down in price a 1/3 vitamin C is more expensive.
That's why I hate Sue Kedgeley, and the Greens soft-drink charge so much. The solution to the change in our diets can't be to try and drive the price of calories back up, rather than try and bring the price of nutrients down.
This is a long, and kind of rambling post. I had a lot more to say, but this is a start, I'll try and expand on some of these posts in the next few days. I refuse to join into the current discourse on food for a reason, because I think it misses the problem. I think everytime we talk about 'healthy' food we're just creating another way they can sell things for us.
I think the any problems with food in our society can only be solved if we go attack the cause of the problem. The profit motive.
*This may or may not be true, I'm not hear to police individual debates on the value of different sorts of food. On an individual level I suspect part of the problem with talking about the dangers of one item of food in your diet, as it's not what you take out of your diet, but what you substitute it with, that makes a difference to your longevity and quality of life.
**I should go to bed, but there's a whole lot more detail in what this means, I'll write it up tomorrow.