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Sick Planet: Our Obsession with Dieting Boosts the Economy But Destroys the Earth

Our obsession with dieting, including the low-carb Atkins fad, may be good for our economy but it's a nightmare for the environment and our health.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Below is an excerpt from chapter 4 of the new book, Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine, by one of AlterNet's favorite writers, Stan Cox and reprinted with permission of Pluto Press. The book draws the link between Western big business and environmental destruction, covering everything from energy to health care to the foods we eat. Chapter 4, "Swallowing the Earth whole," begins by looking back at an analysis of the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet originally done by Cox and Marty Bender in 2003. They concluded that if the then-enormously popular diet regimen were adopted by all overweight people, the impact on global ecosystems and resources would be heavy. The chapter continues:

Now that Atkins has taken its bows and yielded the stage to competitors, we can look back and see that it didn't really matter whether it was a real or fake commodity. It did what commodities do, generating a lot of economic activity and using up a lot of resources. Despite scares over mad cow disease in 2004, the price of a live steer in Texas hit 84 cents per pound, up from 67 cents in 2002; turkey consumption in the state shot up 22 percent.

Delighted feedlot and poultry companies credited low-carb eating for much of the boost. The hog population of Iowa rose by 640,000. Earnings on shares of Smithfield Foods, Inc., at the time the nation's largest producer of hogs, fresh pork, and processed meats, increased more than tenfold. A couple of years later, the CEO of Tyson Foods, Inc., America's biggest meat producer, responded with a kind of nostalgia to a March, 2007 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that the Atkins diet probably had achieved greater weight loss than some other popular diets: ''Atkins was good for demand then and its accolades here recently ... that's good for us and we do appreciate that the Atkins diet gets that kind of recognition."

Atkins was just one phase, if an especially newsworthy one, in the long, meandering evolution of Western dieting. In the years since Marty and I did our analysis, traditional low-carb regimens in the Atkins vein have largely given way to diet plans more focused on the "glycemic index" of carbohydrates and foods. Diet plans, diet foods, devices, drugs, treatments, organizations, and facilities come and go, but one thing never changes: the weight-reduction market never loses economic weight.

In the US alone, sales were $58 billion in 2007, and Marketdata Enterprises, Inc. predicted that they would reach $69 billion by 2010. With the low-carb boom fading, Marketdata saw continued growth in diet plans, diet-food home delivery, diet pharmaceuticals, and bariatric surgery (which drastically reduces the capacity of the stomach).

Marty and I analyzed the ecological impact of the Atkins diet in only one dimension: the nutrient composition of the food consumed. To my knowledge, the total environmental burden has not been estimated for Atkins or any other weight-loss strategy. The foods and other commodities they offer are generally heavily processed, with high packaging-to-product ratios. Anything having to do with medicine can be ecologically pricey, as we saw in Chapters 1 to 3, and health clubs and weight-loss centers have an impact as well.

All weight-loss products and services create a bigger burden than do those old-fashioned, well-proven measures that will be recommended by any nutritionist who isn't trying to sell you something: eating less, eating out rarely, cooking with food in its least-processed form, limiting consumption of animal products, drinking mainly water, avoiding between-meal snacks, and, whenever possible, walking, running or cycling instead of driving. To have all overweight people follow that and other prosaic advice for good health would avert conflict between humans and other animals; it would emphasize our reliance on natural systems; it would be more affordable for everyone regardless of income; and it would probably precipitate an economic crisis.

In a hungry world like this one, to be able to adopt any formal dietary/fitness regimen for purposes of self-improvement is a luxury in itself. In his novel he Comedians , Graham Greene has the narrator, Mr. Brown, make that point to the altruistic Mr. Smith regarding Smith's failed proposal for a "vegetarian center" in Haiti:

Brown: "I don't think they are quite ripe here for vegetarianism."

Smith: "I was thinking the same, but perhaps..."

Brown: "Perhaps you must have enough cash to be carnivorous first."

Nutrition schemes make excellent commodities because they are perennially popular whatever their failure rate. (And failure is the norm; according to a National Institutes of Health panel, "In controlled settings, participants who remain in weight loss programs usually lose approximately 10% of their weight. However, one third to two thirds of the weight is regained within 1 year, and almost all is regained within 5 years.")

If they did their job well, or if people swore off them for good whenever they failed, the market would slow to a trickle. But the success of weight-loss plans isn't entirely the result of failure; their tag-team partner, the food industry, ensures a steady flow of lapsed dieters seeking a second or a fourth chance. Newly overweight customers seem to grow younger every year. It takes the ideas of entrepreneurs, an excess supply of fattening foods, and plenty of sedentary jobs and couch-potato pastimes to keep the weight-loss game going.

And it's finding new frontiers all the time. Advertisements for weight loss plans, diet foods, and fitness centers are now ubiquitous in the cities of India, a country where 25 percent of upper-income women and 30 percent of upper-income adolescents are now clinically obese even while 21 percent of urban women and 48 percent of rural women are undernourished. It's no more than one would expect in India, a country where 20 percent of the population eats 80 percent of the dietary fat. There, capitalism has been embraced with an ardor rarely seen even in the West; the front half of every Indian bookstore I've visited is stuffed with business, management, and motivational books.

The more wealth there is in a given region or social stratum, the bigger the share of commodities it can absorb. With obesity, capitalist economies are well-tuned for supplying commodities that create the problem -- rich and plentiful food, motor vehicles, TVs, computers, video games -- as well as those billed as solutions -- diet books, diet foods, gyms, and drugs -- but only to those who can afford them. Meanwhile, members of India's impoverished majority remain pleasingly lean (if they're managing to obtain a sufficient diet) or emaciated (if they're not.)

America and other Western nations -- and even some poorer ones -- have broken out of the historical pattern that says the rich shall be fat and the poor thin. Here, food, especially low-nutritional-value, fattening food, is plentiful and cheap while commodities advertised as "solving" the problem of excessive weight gain are not. In 2006, Forbes magazine surveyed the costs of ten of the most popular weight-loss plans. Not surprisingly, all of them added significantly to the dieter's weekly food bill, with the median increase pegged at 58 percent. The Jenny Craig plan was the most expensive, boosting food costs by 152 percent. Atkins was number three, with an 85 percent increase. Nutrisystem added 109 percent, Weight Watchers 78 percent. The strategy of eating low-fat sandwiches at Subway restaurants, heavily publicized on TV, was the cheapest, adding 26 percent.

But even Subway is a luxury. In the 2004 documentary Supersize Me , filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for a whole month. The most poignant scene in the film occurred on a side-trip to visit a competitor. At a Subway restaurant, Spurlock featured an eighth-grader named Victoria who had come with her mother to an event featuring company spokesperson Jared Fogle, who is widely celebrated for having lost more than 200 pounds on a Subway-based diet. Fogle told Victoria, who was immersed in her own struggle to lose weight, "The world's not going to change -- you've got to change."

When Fogle had moved on to other customers, Victoria spoke to the camera: "I guess it's kinda cool that I know somebody and can be able to listen to somebody about actually being where I am now, and it's hard because I can't afford to go there like every single day and buy a sandwich, like, two times a day, and that's what he's talking about, like that's the only solution."

All the fish in the sea

More and more, nutritional plans emphasize not food but the individual compounds into which food can be broken, like sugars, starches, proteins, fatty acids, fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. In the food game, the sum of the parts turns out to be worth far more than the whole, so the decomposition of food has opened up whole new marketing vistas.

Now food itself is losing its definition, as what we eat is increasingly regarded as a simple agglomeration of nutrients to be consumed in proportions prescribed largely by the sellers of the nutrients. Much of this has been prompted by a real problem: the distorted diets that have evolved in an increasingly urbanized world. Whole industries have emerged to plug the holes that industrial agriculture and food processing leave in the human diet.

In examining an especially critical need to plug one such hole, British writer George Monbiot has drawn attention to a problem that shows how difficult it can sometimes be to answer Marty's and my pragmatic -- or Kant's philosophical -- question, "What if everyone did it?" Noting that before the dawn of agriculture, people consumed approximately equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (two of the many kinds of fatty acids that, strung together, make up fats and oils), Monbiot cited figures showing that we now we in the West get only one-seventeenth as much omega-3 as omega-6. He then discussed studies suggesting that childhood neurological problems like dyslexia and ADD are associated with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the womb.

As is well known and as Monbiot pointed out, the highest concentrations by far of omega-3s, and the highest omega-3/omega-6 ratios, are found in oily fish species. Incorporated into convenient capsules, the omega-3 fatty acids from fish might make a big difference in kids' school performance, not to mention their lives in general. Treating millions of children worldwide would be a relatively simple and effective procedure.

But, as Monbiot put it, "There is only one problem: there are not enough fish." Citing Charles Clover's 2006 book The End of the Line: How Over-fishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat Monbiot went on to list some of the many ways the human economy, using factory-style vessels and methods, has plundered and then frittered away its nutritionally priceless ocean catch, using it as fertilizer, fuel, and feed -- to nourish terrestrial livestock and even other fish. (I would add that a third of all canned fish sold in the US is for cats and dogs.)

A study of ocean ecosystems published in the journal Science made headlines in November, 2006 by predicting the global collapse of all currently exploited fish species by the year 2048. A few other researchers have quarreled with the predicted date of collapse, but few argue that exploitation of the oceans can continue at its current level for the long haul. Any attempt to reverse the growth of fishing will have to fight its way upstream against continuous growth in demand, as persistent low-carb publicity has thrown its weight behind the traditional reputation of fish as generally healthful. In recent years, medical studies have indicated many benefits of fish-eating beyond those cited by Monbiot. They have suggested, for example, that increased intake of omega-3s can alleviate heart disease and arthritis and curb the symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and Huntington's disease.

Fish are rich in the two omega-3s of greatest interest, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), but they're not the only source. An array of plant-derived foods, flax seed being the most prominent, are sources of omega-3s that the human body can break down, albeit inefficiently, to EPA and DHA. Some vegetable oils have much higher omega-3 / omega-6 ratios than do others, a quality that is considered nutritionally important. And a big shift away from factory farming could improve meat-eaters' health without any change in their daily menu. That's because meat and dairy products from grass-fed livestock and eggs from free-range chickens have much better omega-3/omega-6 ratios than do products from their feedlot- or confinement-raised counterparts.

Using knowledge like that and moving wholesale toward nutritionally and ecologically balanced food systems would go a long way toward resolving the fatty-acid imbalances that are affecting human health. To ask, "What if everybody did that?" does not raise any obvious ecological dilemmas, as long as a sufficient quantity and variety of food is produced. But that approach has spurred only minor interest.

On the other hand, treatment of the fatty-acid problem as an isolated medical condition is a "solution" with the kinds of qualities that spell success in a capitalist economy: an easily identifiable product (in this case, either a plate of fish or an oil capsule), a richly concentrated source of the product's essential ingredient that's easily mined (at least until it runs out); a simple marketing message (that the product is essential to ward off specific diseases, especially children's diseases); and an already well-established, and profitable, marketing context (the perceived need for many different nutritional supplements, each to solve a different problem). Isolating and treating fatty-acid imbalance indeed provides a lot of advantages to marketers but, as Monbiot implies, it would mean disaster if everybody did it.

The chapter goes on to consider the ecological impact four commodities that have been sold explicitly as means of achieving a longer, healthier, happier life: green tea, shark cartilage, Hoodia, and bottled water. To find out more about Sick Planet, visit the website.

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine is his first book.

 
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