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Diane Mufson: Food companies' goals help fatten us

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 10:50 PM

Recently, food, dieting, weight loss programs and surgery have become more of a "hot" topic than ever. We, the people who worship Twinkies and fast food, are mystified as to how we have become an overweight nation.

Over 60 percent of the American population is now identified as obese or overweight and our kids are gaining weight faster than ever. Other nations following in our fat, salt and sugar saturated footsteps are also becoming plumper. What we truly need is realistic consumer knowledge about our well-loved, highly advertised foods and beverages and how they affect our eating habits and waistlines.

A vital, often unaddressed, issue is that the major food companies that market mouth-watering and irresistible foods are motivated by their profits rather than our health. A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," addresses this.

This author's main concepts were described in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, "Inside the hyperengineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for American 'stomach share.'" The article provides a good picture of how marketing, scientific studies and creativity are making us easy targets for obesity.

It's unreasonable to blame all our weight and health ills on the makers of soft drinks, chips, snack and processed foods, but reading how food manufacturers have strived to discover the "bliss point," or the level at which we naive souls "crave" a food, should make us wiser. And we need wisdom in battling an industry that seeks to make us crave foods, pretty much the same way that tobacco companies did.

When presented with foods that appeal to us so much that we can't say "no," we don't realize that we are no match for food science and clever marketing. To combat obesity, we need to understand the food producers' goals, but also recognize that we can control some aspects of weight gain through the choice and amount of foods we consume.

We need to admit that the quicker food gets from the production line into our mouths is not optimal for our bodies. Fruits and vegetables are healthful but rarely "pushed" by food merchants. I remain amazed at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's foray into a local elementary school a few years ago where children were unable to recognize a tomato or potato in original form. Some school breakfast and lunch programs here and around the nation have worked to provide healthier choices, but some students complain of hunger, possibly because they are used to large portions.

Calories, a unit of energy supplied by food, have been portrayed as an outdated concept, but they provide a good indication of how much food can be consumed without adding pounds. Understanding calories would probably do more for our nation's health than competence in algebra.

Over the years, every imaginable diet has been advocated at some time and most diets have worked for some people for some amount of time. Yet, people cannot exist happily in a constant state of dieting, which doesn't mesh with their social lives or food choices.

America's obesity problem requires us to understand many factors, such as portion control, calories, ingredients, but especially our "cravings" for snacks and treats that major food producers have deliberately engineered to attract us. We need to read the labels on food items and see how they are overloaded with salt, sugar and fats. Considering the goals of major food companies, realistic consumer knowledge is a good way to help counteract our nation's obesity crisis.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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