Obesity and the Food Industry
NS: The police recently intervened in a case of alleged abuse, in which the parents were said to be responsible for their child’s obesity. We cannot know the full story because the details remain confidential at this stage. But this case seems to raise two questions: can parents who feed their child an unhealthy diet be regarded as guilty of abuse? And if so, are not the food, marketing and advertising industries perhaps equally culpable for the damage they are doing to countless children?
RJR: I think the food, marketing and advertising industries are more responsible than the parents actually. Some people do not have the resources to be truly informed, so they have what is given to them through television and when they go down to their local supermarket. I believe it is very difficult not to be hoodwinked by the more accessible information that is out there. And I think that it is abuse, but not just by the parents.
NS: I agree that the marketing and advertising industries must be culpable. But isn’t it incumbent on all parents to do the best for their children and to be informed enough to make positive choices for their children’s health? It sounds a bit like an excuse – that the advertising and marketing is just so seductive and digestible that it’s not really the parents’ fault.
RJR: I did say it was the parents too. It is just that people used to be able to trust the information that was out there. And of course there are some very aware parents out there, but they are the educated ones. We are not all born equally…..
NS: Was there really a golden age when people were given trustworthy information about the products they were buying? Cigarettes used to be promoted as being good for your breathing. Sugar-laden breakfast cereals have been promoted as healthy breakfasts for decades and decades. Milk has long been pushed as the major source of calcium and a health-giving food – which some would argue is far from the case. I think you are right in that the educated parents are the ones who may be able to see through the hype. But then, don’t they still have a problem in “selling” healthy food to their kids?
RJR: I am not sure they do. The parents that I work with who have trouble selling healthy food to their kids are still struggling with giving up their own conditioning and addictions. The parents that I work with who truly understand health and food, feed their young ones from the start healthy conscious choices. With the others I work with the concept of ‘treats’ and how they should reframe that belief and substitute it with the word ‘poison’.
NS: I like your “poison” approach! Parents probably are poisoning their kids on an industrial scale (on behalf of the food industry) and the health problems being stored up for the future as a result of this are likely to be horrendous (and unimaginable). No doubt many children see no connection between what they eat and their health, and no doubt many adults still see no connection either. The instant gratification of appetites with no thought for the longer term is a theme that we have touched on before in our dialogues, but it seems particularly pertinent to the food issue. Why do people prefer to pay for ready-made meals, processed food etc, when they can buy fresh ingredients from the market and cook their own meals – which would likely be cheaper and healthier?
RJR: Time I suspect plays a part, and convenience, and conditioning. We are living in a forever increasingly fast-moving society where rushing around in chaos is the norm. Convenience food relieves time pressure. With a good dose of radiation from the microwave – despite warnings all over the net that we should not even be in the kitchen while those killers are cooking, and we are creating our very own time bomb.
NS: Now you’re painting a picture of a food-based apocalypse! And you may well be right.So why do we ruin our children’s health with the food we give them, while at the same time making ourselves ill – and all of this at the same time as we more or less know what we are doing? Are we powerless to resist advertising? Or powerless to resist things that are bad for us? Or powerless in the face of the food system – which means you have to make a real effort every day of your life to eat well?
RJR: I would say we are powerless. We are governed by our brain and our chemicals and if the world is encouraging us, it is very difficult to hold on to what we know is right when all the messages are to the contrary. Take packaging of food for example. If we choose something that looks healthy, should we not assume that it is healthy? If we buy fruit or meat from the supermarket, should we not expect it to be fresh and free from pesticides and additives? On a related subject, I went out for dinner the other night to a lovely local restaurant. I ordered a large glass of Merlot and was given the old measure of 175ml in a gorgeously shaped glass. My brain however told me that it was rather a small glass as I have become accustomed to a large glass being 250ml. I remember when the measures changed and I thought at the time that 250ml was huge, and over the driving limit, but now I have become used to it, or my brain has. I had to fight feeling hard done by even though I knew I used to feel outraged that the measures had changed and that people were being encouraged to drink more. Any thoughts on the subject?
NS: I think, as in many things, there is an ongoing conflict between what we know in our hearts to be right and what our primitive instincts, appetites and cravings demand. These appetites are powerful forces and the food industry happily enlists them as strong allies. We can be easily led into consuming something that we know is not in our best interests because we just WANT it. And as long as we fail in the face of the powerful forces of primal nature and manipulative marketing, we seem bound to continue failing our children. Perhaps this discussion may help strengthen the resolve to do better…