The Illusion of Excess: How too much sugar in American diets is only one piece of our nation’s health problem

The Illusion of Excess: How too much sugar in American diets is only one piece of our nation’s health problem

This past week, I had the opportunity to see a thought-provoking documentary on a subject relevant to our mission here at Hope Street Group. The film, titled Fed Up, offered a critically acclaimed look at how excess sugar may be the underexposed downfall of the American diet. Produced by Katie Couric and Laurie David, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary takes a firm stance that the reason obesity has become an epidemic is because Americans (and citizens of other countries who are adopting America’s unhealthy food habits) are consuming too much sugar, which is hidden in large amounts and various forms in many of the foods a working-class family might eat in a typical week. The film also argues that children are barraged from a very young age with aggressive marketing for these highly processed food products, and are essentially groomed to opt for less healthful foods throughout their lifetimes as a result of it.

On the surface, it seems the problem in the film is clearly one of unnecessary excess. While many people see the issue of obesity as one of an individuals’ inability to restrict their diet and/or improve their frequency of exercise, the film actually argues that mass production of, and advertising for, sugar-laden foods has resulted in a public health failure. As a nation inundated with packaged, nutritionally engineered foods, we appear to be suffering from our own inability to stop food industry practices that influence consumers to eat overly processed products, thus fueling behaviors that result in obesity and diabetes.

But I had to wonder: in the end, is the problem really one of too much?

On the challenge of reducing obesity, it seems to me that a lack of transparency and knowledge, exacerbated by a lack of equity, is really the underlying issue. When it comes to health and fitness, I do agree with Fed Up that answers on how to promote enhanced wellness are often more complex than just promoting diet and exercise. But, really, I see a lack of public, family, and individual education on what makes for good nutrition as a more dire threat than any one dietary extreme alone (be it too much sugar, fat, salt, pesticides, etc.). If we are, as a society, largely unaware of what truly constitutes a healthful diet, or the repercussions for our bodies if we choose to largely ignore nutritional concerns, then we won’t be in control of our own health. Business-driven food production and advertising practices have made a commodity of what should be a tool for survival, but demonizing one element of that process alone will not solve the larger issue.

What we need is more education on this issue of wellness, as well as more flexibility in envisioning solutions to problems like childhood obesity. A perfect response to the realization that most of us eat too much sugar might be to start making farm-to-table (or farmer’s market-to-table) food from scratch, as was suggested by the film—cultivating our own high-quality, affordable, nutrient-rich meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The perfect solution, however, might also not be the most attainable one, especially for low-income families who often have less resources and less time to spend on food preparation than do high-income families. The reason fast foods and packaged foods have proliferated is because there is a demand for convenience. Perhaps this demand should be tempered, but in the meantime, the goal should be to continue working with companies to improve the health of their products (not just marketing a snack as all natural, but really preserving the integrity of what that means). And it is not just the companies that need to change, of course, but people as well.

Maybe what we also need to keep in mind in our efforts to unpack the complex paths toward greater health is that an individual’s ability to succeed does not hinge entirely on policy changes at the federal level. Know-how and an empowered sense of agency can be tools that are just as powerful. Policies can and do make changes for the better, but if the end users are unaware they exist, or aren’t adequately informed on the issues themselves, their impacts will be less profound.

What we should strive to understand is that while there may be a plethora of options for improving one’s health, there is also often a lack of support at the local level in taking the initial steps toward doing so. We like to think that a number of opportunities are within grasp of those individuals who need them, if we can just motivate them to get there, but thinking about this film made me realize how important that final, at once simple and extraordinary step really is—particularly for low-income American families, who are often the least well-equipped to implement and sustain the sorts of lifestyle changes for which these films are advocating. I believe this is why we, at Hope Street Group, see the need to tie policy to programs, and to challenge the hierarchies in our nation’s problem-solving processes as well as in our economic opportunity infrastructure. Because if we can’t actually reach those most in need, then maybe we’re missing the whole point.

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