Why Junk Food Can’t End Obesity

19 July 2013

blog, health, hunger, nutrition, obesity

by Cassidy Bennett, Website & Communications Intern

atlantic images

David Freedman’s cover article for the July/August 2013 issue of the Atlantic “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” outlines his opposition to much of the uprising food justice movement. As I was thinking about his article, articles written in response to his article, and related material, several points jumped out at me. The ideas that interested me most were what he believes are the mistakes of the leaders of the food movement, the claim that processed or fast foods are equally as healthy as whole foods, and the argument that people in socially disadvantaged communities will only consume fast food. I was skeptical of, and even angry about many of his claims, yet here is his article on the cover of the Atlantic, seemingly as fact. His article reminded me of how so many critical issues are often framed in ways that allow one point of view to dominate, even if it is not supported with facts or research. Critical thinking when reading about important issues like food justice or immigration is a must, and reading further articles on the ideas he brings up allowed me to learn more about them and form my own opinions.

Throughout Freedman’s article he spends much of his time discussing Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Sections of his article become attacks on Pollan and “Pollanites,” those who follow Pollan’s ideas and ideals closely, integrating them into their eating habits and lives. Freedman focuses too heavily on this idea, believing that Pollan is the voice of the entire food movement, seemingly generalizing the entire movement and range of views to this one man, believing that everyone involved in any part of these ideas agrees with all of his ideas. By generalizing in this way he allows himself to criticize the entire food movement instead of acknowledging how many moving and unique parts it contains – every part of it with a different position even if all have similar goals. He does this while also admitting that he follows a similar diet to Pollan and Bittman.

Freedman presents a traditional, thermodynamic, black and white view of obesity and poverty – people consume obesogenic foods full of calories, fat, sugar, and salt, they do not exercise, thus they get fat. He continues his criticism of Pollan and Bittman by citing all the fat and sugar they add to their recipes, which emphasize local, seasonal foods, taste, simplicity, and avoidance of processed ingredients. According to Freedman, these foods are as obesogenic as the processed fast foods and junk foods that Pollan calls “food-like substances.” The problem with Freedman’s statement is that these ideas have been challenged and researchers have found many other influences on obesity and weight gain. Often, these other influences are tightly bound to socially disadvantaged communities. For example, when mothers spend much of their time hungry or even starving, their babies will develop metabolisms preparing them to live life hungry and “store fat whenever they can, to get them through periods of want.[i]” While this may make sense evolutionarily, it does not bode well for this child’s ability to metabolize food on a normal diet. Another possible cause is the presence of BPA in containers, and thus in food. BPA is present in most canned foods, and more likely found in cheaper products. David Berreby discusses this and many other possible contributors to obesity in his essay, “The Obesity Era,” which also brings up how not just humans are getting fatter over time – animals are as well.


In a TED talk given by Dr. Peter Attia, he questions if the obesity crisis is concealing a bigger problem. We often discuss obesity in the frame of causing other medical problems – diabetes and insulin resistance specifically. He is approaching the issue from a different angle, exploring the idea that insulin resistance and diabetes are actually causing the obesity. Dr. Attia hopes that the medical community can begin treating the cause of obesity, instead of continuing the “less food, more exercise” narrative that cannot always help people whose bodies produce too much insulin[ii]. Through the work he has done, he has found that it is “the refined grains, starches, and sugars in our diets that cause insulin resistance in the first place[iii].” Freedman seems to believe all calories are the same – but they’re just not. It does matter what we eat, and our processed food supply leans heavily on these refined grains and sugars. Even in the food that Freedman mentions fast food restaurants are working to make healthier – such as the Egg White Delight McMuffin, which is “cooked in partially hydrogenated oils, the most heart-damaging types of fats[iv]” – still contain these ingredients that are changing the way we store fat in our cells. There have also been studies showing that putting “healthy” food on fast food menus makes people more likely to choose the least healthy option[v]. People see fast food as an indulgence, they do not expect it to be healthy. If this is the outlook on fast food can we really ever expect it to be people’s healthy option or the force behind slowing or stopping obesity?

 As I was speaking to a more conservative neighbor this weekend I was explaining to her my internship here and the work I am participating in with CFJC. She brought up the idea that even if we placed fresh fruit and vegetables right under the noses of impoverished communities they would not buy it or cook with it themselves – they are simply too ingrained in their mindset of eating only fast food. This was an idea very similar to that of Freedman’s article and it took patience for me to continue the conversation politely. When I brought up that many people living in poverty work two jobs and may not have time to shop for fresh food and cook daily for their families, she believed that even when people living in these socially disadvantaged communities are not working at all, they are too lazy to cook and only wish to eat junk food and fast food. As I was discussing this later we brought up the idea that unfortunately, people like my well meaning, older neighbor, and David Freedman are the ones who seem stuck in a mindset – they have preconceived ideas of why people are heavy and why they eat what they do, seemingly believing these people have no agency.

Looking more in depth at the obesity crisis gives us one reason that food is related to immigration, poverty, and fair wages and that food justice will not be achieved easily. CFJC works to make all parts of the food chain equitable, and they all relate to one another. We cannot just focus on food availability and equal access; simply placing healthier options at the front of one store in a community does not mean that everyone in that community will begin buying only those foods. Often these changes need to take place in conjunction with raising the minimum wage, increasing access to SNAP, giving people the money as well as the time to prepare meals together and limit fast food to rarity and necessity. Even if fast food is getting healthier, the opportunity to shop together, cook meals together, and sit down at the table together can bring relationships closer, and even build stronger families. Healthier fast food is unlikely to be the answer we have been missing in the food justice/food movement equation. As I continue to intern with CFJC, I am reminded that there is not just one answer, and learn that as an organization that works for social justice through a food justice lens, CFJC is able to work on many problems in our system that all contribute to food inequality and collaborate with others on how we can solve these problems.


“Social peace is a prerequisite to food justice and food security. “ – Maria Whittaker

Read the original article here.


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CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

If you believe in these principles JOIN CFJC NOW.

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