Why Fight for the Right to Choose Unhealthy Food?

Did you see the report last week about trans fats and our national health? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented that trans fats in the blood of adult white males plunged from 2000 to 2008, dropping 58 percent over that time along with a decrease in LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and an increase in HDL (“good cholesterol”). According to a story in The Washington Post, “the decline, unusually big and abrupt, strongly suggests government regulation was effective in altering a risk factor for heart disease for a broad swath of the population.”

This improvement should eventually produce healthier families, lower health costs, and longer, more productive lives. Even better news in my mind is that we now know that improving the “nutritional profile” of processed and restaurant foods is possible and obviously cost-effective after all. In this case, the food industry simply substituted one or more healthy ingredients for highly unhealthy ones that had been developed and used solely for the sake of cost and convenience. This is also further proof that when our government does step in to “promote the general welfare,” it can reverse 50 years of a specific predictable and preventable assault on our health.

Within days of this report, I came across another column that derided the “food police” who stepped up to save us from trans fats. In her Washington Post column, Tracy Grant did not rail against all regulation. She did indicate that she agrees that “parents need to be educated about the importance of healthy eating for their children.” But at the same time she declared that as a parent, she should be the one to make the call on what her children eat, and she worried more about losing control over these decisions than the effects of childhood obesity.

That’s another curious aspect of this discussion about our food choices. Over those same 50 years, somehow the discussion has shifted. It is now cast as a battle for control over who makes choices rather than what our options should be. We are arguing over maintaining control to choose to eat “manufactured” food — food that has been so adulterated with additives and, in some cases, toxins that it threatens our good health. And those who rail against the food police actually want to be able to choose to feed their families something that is no longer food, as defined for centuries as what we ingest to stay alive and healthy.

I am not against the occasional meal as a treat, but I do not agree that we are better off having unhealthy choices. And those who argue for “control over what they eat” have simply been duped. We lost that control a long time ago, and it wasn’t because the government took it away. The government may have let it happen, but even the government has lost control in the last 50 years. The hapless family who wants to raise healthy children on real food is swimming against the red tide of an industry that has done a good job of restating the argument and dictating the rules of debate. If Nina Planck and Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and Joel Salatin have to write books to remind us what real food is — and they all did — then who is in control?

So all hail the news that at least in one case, and with all due credit to New York City and California, who led the way on the trans-fat crackdown, we now have some healthier choices, even when we choose to eat hamburgers that have five non-food ingredients in them. What we really need is a government that will stand up to those in control more often and help us to back into a future where even more of our choices are real food.