IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You’ll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.
2020 was a year of me trying to make Intuitive Eating fit into my life. I bloody loved the idea of it; Be guided naturally by my body into making gentle food choices that organically supported my well-being. Who wouldn’t want that eating utopia? And it all seemed so rational too. Maybe that’s another reason why my little science-led brain loved it. After all, it doesn’t make any logical sense that my body or mind would persuade me to eat a diet that would harm me.
But intuitive eating never really felt like it fit for me (I know others love it and I totally support people making autonomous food choices that suit them). Despite truly following all the guidelines, I was left feeling lethargic, less supported by food, and wanting to move less, all of which led to me losing a little bit of trust in my brain and body. Maybe they really were trying to fuck me over!
From everything I know now, I can say with some confidence that our short-term-focused subconscious mind doesn’t really care about our long-term happiness and health (see blog #7) . It cares that we’re alive and getting what we need right now. This little intuitive eating experiment prompted me to take a deeper look at what else might be guiding my food choices if it wasn’t a desire to give a fuck about my 80-year-old self.
We humans love to believe that we’re special individual snowflakes. And in many respects, we are. But we’re also tribal animals and as such, have evolved a deep-rooted instinct to be part of a community and follow the group’s rules, adopting them as if they were our own beliefs and values. So, putting that into an eating context, what if the food choices we think are coming from our own bodies and minds, were actually just us following the rules our culture has ingrained in us. Rules that have nothing to do with our own health, and more to benefit someone or something else.
If you like conspiracy theories, you’ll LOVE today’s chapter of The Anti-Fitness Story. Especially when most, if not all of these conspiracy theories are more like conspiracy facts with plenty of evidence to support them. And if you hate conspiracies then the TLDR takeaway point for today is that everything we believe when it comes to food is highly likely to be put there by governments and the food industry.
There’s so much to this topic, but as I know you probably have a job, maybe a family, and some hobbies, I’ll keep this blog limited just to the main forces guiding our nutrition choices. But feel free to go fall down some rabbit holes of your own if any topics especially grab your attention.
NB: before I start, this blog will feature a lot of chat about highly processed foods. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be implying that there’s such a thing as ‘better’ and ‘worse’ food choices. And whilst I disagree this concept, just to make this chapter easier to write, I’m going to go with it. I hope that’s cool with you and that you’ll forgive me. Keep reading the blog, and you’ll discover in future chapters how ridiculously nuanced and complicated nutrition science is in real life, and that separating individual foods from an overall way of living is basically impossible.
Grains & Farming
Humans started farming super-early in their journey from caveman hammer wielders of the Stone Age to the fancy iPhones carriers we are in today’s Digital Age. By the early 20th century, people were so good at farming that for the first time in human history, we had the problem of there being too much food rather than too little. But by the end of the second world war, this lifesaving excess had turned into problematic over supply and price wars over who could sell their products the cheapest. Farmers were in a race to the bottom and struggling to survive.
American governments realised that the farming industry was too important to be allowed to collapse, and so in 1933 created the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). This Act asked farmers to limit what that they grew, thus reducing the amounts of food available and therefore, in theory, allowing prices to rise and restabilise.
Whilst the AAA applied to all crops, the government decided to give extra support to those who produced crops like cotton, wheat, corn, and soy – they were seen as the most versatile, easiest and most stable to grow, and therefore the most important to society. A price floor was created for those crops and the farmers were even paid a subsidy for every kg of them that they could produce. This inevitably led to farmers favouring the now more profitable grains, and many stopped farming fruits and veg altogether making the price of those key commodities soar.
The subsidised crops became essentially cheaper to grow and therefore farmers sold them to food manufacturers for a fricking steal. So rather than manufacturing foods using a variety of ingredients as they were used to doing, food companies got ridiculously inventive as to how they could shove the newly cheapened grains into as much food as possible; Cheap ingredients equals big profit margins. And of course, they refocused all their marketing budgets on selling the food that was now making them the most money. This resulted in highly processed foods quickly flooding the market whilst fresh fruit and veg got relatively more expensive.
The animal product industries also took advantage of cheap grains and used them increasingly in animal feeds, directly increasing meat and dairy production and making both cheaper for consumers to buy.
The AAA was deemed a huge success and caught on in other countries. However, turns out that this one simple Act might have really fucked our entire food system and diet landscape for good. It has been directly blamed for:
- Increase in highly processed food consumption: plus more sugar, salt, and fat.
- Increase in meat consumption.
- Decrease in fruit and veg consumption.
- An increase in calorie consumption in general.
- Huge environmental impacts.
- A precarious food that could easily collapse.
- Many small farmers going out of business as they can’t keep up with big boys in terms of grain production methods.
We now live under the illusion that we have more food choices than ever before. Our supermarkets are huge with so many variations in brands, prices, and types of food. But in reality, over 80% of it is simply well-marketed combinations of just a few ingredients: corn, wheat, rice, and soy. So when we think we’re making independent decisions about what we eat, are our trolleys actually just filled with the ingredients it suits the food and farming industries to sell us more of?
I know it’s painful to hear, but maybe there’s no idealised notion of our ancient, all-knowing bodies guiding us toward intuitive food-buying decisions. Maybe we’re actually just picking between breakfast cereal made from corn, chicken nuggets made from corn, or salad dressing made from corn. Does that count as a real choice? I’m not here to make that distinction for you, I’m afraid.
The AAA is a perfect example of just one of the ways governments have affected the types of food available for us to buy. But they also have a major influence on what we eat by giving us advice on what they believe to be healthy. And whether you’re health conscious or not, this information seeps its way into your subconscious when you select what we eat. We just can’t help but run each food type through our good food/bad food filter of judgment, no matter how intuitively led we think we are. Morals are part of the deeply ingrained cultural rules that we all live by, and we’re taught as kids that food has morals. And even if we grow to change that belief in our conscious behaviours, it never 100% leaves the back of our heads. Sorry! We can learn to live with it and ignore it though.
In her very excellent book, “Food Politics,” renowned nutritionist and educator, Marion Nestle, argues that the government’s dietary guidelines aren’t just about our health. She and many others believe that they’ve always been more heavily influenced by politics and the food industry, than by nutrition science.
The first official set of government dietary guidelines was released in 1956 and recommended that Americans eat a diet consisting of meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and grains. Seems like sensible eating, right?
However, Nestle shows that this advice wasn’t based on rigorous scientific evidence, but on the interests of the agricultural industry, it was paying huge subsidies to support. Here are just some of the ways that farmers and other industries have benefitted from government recommendations to the public that went against nutrition science’s advice at the time:
- Meat and dairy industry influence: In the 1980s and 1990s, the meat and dairy industries lobbied (code for persuaded with money) the government to promote their products in the food pyramid. The pyramid’s recommendations told us to eat more meat and dairy than many experts believed was healthy.
- Sugar industry influence: In 2016, a study showed that the sugar industry had paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the role of sugar in heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit. The government’s dietary guidelines told people to limit saturated fat whilst giving the food industry almost complete free reign to sneak as much sugar as it wanted into our food in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
- Soda industry influence: In 2015 Coca-Cola gave millions of dollars in funding to researchers to cover up the negative impacts of fizzy drinks on our health. Governments chose not to put limits on how fizzy drinks companies could advertise and to whom. This led to some dodgy business practices in schools, and even dodgier ones in developing countries who at the time had few processed sugars in their diets.
- Grain industry influence: As mentioned earlier, government subsidies for grain and corn have led to the overproduction of these crops and the proliferation of highly processed foods made from them. Even now, the main part of the food pyramid is comprised of foods made from these ingredients.
- Pizza vegetable controversy: In 2011, the American Congress passed a bill that classified tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable in school lunches (even though it contains a fuck tonne of sugar).
- Trans fat labelling: In the 1990s, the food industry lobbied to allow trans fats to be listed as “0 grams” on nutrition labels, even though they were still there albeit in small amounts. There has been so much research showing a direct correlation between trans fats and heart disease that it was banned.
- Juice labelling: The juice industry lobbied to allow juice products to be labelled as “healthy” despite their high sugar content.
- Sodium reduction: In 2016, the National Restaurant Association successfully lobbied to delay sodium (salt) reduction targets for packaged foods and restaurant meals.
- Advertising to children: The food industry lobbied against restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children which slowed the process by years, despite clear evidence linking their advertising to poor diets.
- Dairy: Government dairy subsidies and lobbying from the Dairy Industry have been given as explanations as to why dairy products feature so prevalently in food guidelines, why cheese is crammed into so much highly processed food, and why free milk was given to kids in schools, despite evidence that 1) milk might not be as healthy as we’re told, and 2) a significant part of the population being lactose intolerant.
These are just a few examples where over the years, policy has been heavily influenced by lobbyists. But what/who are they?
Lobbying is far more well-known in the US than it is in the rest of the world. So, here’s a quick explanation for those who aren’t clear about how lobbying works, and how food lobbyists shape our food landscape:
LOBBY – A lobbying group is also known as an advocacy group. It’s a group formed of individuals, companies, industries, etc, who share a common interest. They use influence to promote decisions and/or behaviours that benefit said interest whether that be through policy change, laws, or increasing profits to companies involved with it. The NRA (National Rifle Association) is one of the better-known lobbying groups, and most foodstuffs have their own lobby groups: dairy, meat, sugar, avocados, nuts, bread, etc. If a food exists, it probably has a lobbying group attached trying to make money from producing it or trying to get more people to eat it.
And these are just some of the ways they do that:
- Expertise: Lobbyists know a shit tonne about their product area and have expertise that government officials often don’t. This can give them credibility and influence when suggesting policy changes to the people who write them.
- Resources: Lobbyists often have access to a lot of cash and are able to fund research or campaigns that add a veneer of scientific “proof” to their products, even if that proof is tenuous or even non-existent. This TED Talk is a great example of how this works.
- Relationships: Lobbyists spend a LONG time and a LOT of money establishing relationships with government officials, the hope is that when decisions are being made, the officials will remember who their ‘mates’ are.
- Public support: Lobbyists can afford to buy public support through grassroots advocacy campaigns, media outreach, and advertising that puts their products in a good light.
Political parties can’t just ignore lobbying groups though, even though everyone knows what a farse the entire game around them is. Doing so can have serious consequences to governments, such as the loss of campaign contributions, public support, or smear campaigns against government officials.
Watching the dance between lobbying groups and political parties is like watching conspiracy theories play out in real life. It’s fricking fascinating. One of the most publicised of our time was the war between fat and sugar. The winner became the main ingredient in processed food, and the loser took the sole blame for most of our public health problems. Here’s a quick explanation of what happened.
Blaming a Lack of Exercise
Current science tells us that if you eat more energy than you use, you’ll gain weight (remember my disclaimer in the intro here please – whether you accept that premise or not is not important in the context of this blog).
In a world that makes sense, the government would step in and put in place firm guidance around food industry shenanigans. But our world makes abso-fucking-lutely no sense, and so instead, Big Food has been allowed to get away with shifting the blame for poor health onto us and our lack of movement. Their food and how they produce and advertise it gets off scot-free. It doesn’t seem to matter that science shows that exercise only burns a couple of hundred calories at best so essentially bears no relevance to our overall daily calorie balance.
Aside from funding its own research to play down any negative consequences of eating its food whilst bigging up the benefits, Big Food also maintains this charade of exercise negating food with campaigns and promotions that encourage us to move more. This makes them seem like the good guys protecting our health instead of shady MFs selling us cheap-ass corn and wheat wrapped in shiny packets.
Can you remember any of these…
- The Global Energy Balance Network: a non-profit organization founded by Coca-Cola that promoted the idea that physical activity was more important than diet. The organization was widely criticized for its industry ties and disbanded in 2015.
- McDonald’s “Move It” campaign: In 2012, fitness-themed toys in Happy Meals and a website encouraged children to engage in physical activity.
- The “Change4Life” campaign: a public health campaign launched by the UK government in 2009 that aims to promote healthier lifestyles. The campaign has been criticized for promoting physical activity over dietary changes and for partnering with food companies that specialise in highly processed foods.
- Kellogg’s: Kellogg’s launched loads of campaigns and initiatives that promote physical activity among children, including the “Breakfasts for Better Days” campaign, which provided breakfasts and fitness equipment to schools.
- Cadbury: Cadbury spends a lot of time and money promoting physical activity among children, including with their “Sport for Schools” program, where chocolate bar wrappers could be swapped for sports equipment. Eat more to earn more being played out in real life. It didn’t go down well when people finally realised how dumb it was.
- Lucozade: the king of sports drinks, make high sugar products for high-performing athletes, but promotes them as essential kit to anyone from kids to slightly tired office workers. The company has funded research and public health campaigns that emphasize the importance of exercise, including the “Made to Move” campaign, which encouraged consumers to engage in physical activity.
But it’s not just food companies, supermarkets are all over this trend too…
- Tesco has launched a number of campaigns that promote physical activity among children, including the “Tesco Bank Football Challenge,” which provided football coaching to schools.
- Sainsbury’s has funded research and public health campaigns that emphasize the importance of exercise, including the “Active Kids” program, which provided sports equipment to schools.
- Morrisons chose gardening as its movement of choice to promote including the “Let’s Grow” program. Wait, you didn’t think that campaign’s aim was to get us all munching on homegrown lettuces instead of buying Morrison’s ones, did you?
- Asda also had their own sports equipment for schools campaign in their “Asda Sporting Chance” program.
- Co-op has launched a number of campaigns and initiatives that promote physical activity among children, including the “Co-op Juniors” program.
There are many reasons why we should exercise, but ‘making up’ for the food we eat is very much not one of them. Especially when exercise plays such a minor role in a human’s daily calorie output. But rather than supporting our health by promoting the other benefits of movement, governments have just offloaded their responsibilities for exercise promotion to the people that sell us food.
WTF are we thinking when we assume that the industry whose job it is to sell us as much food as possible will have our best interests at heart when it comes to our eating and moving habits? It’s such a fucking stupid concept when you think about it. But their involvement has created such a deep-rooted psychological tie between food and exercise that it’s no wonder we find it so hard to separate without even consciously realising how often we connect the two together.
You're Not Immune to Persuasion
I want to aim my conclusion to this blog as those of you there thinking you’re too smart to be influenced by food advertising or government advice. I also used to be one of those people who believed that all of decisions around things like what I ate were completely autonomous. But then I learned better of it. There’s a reason why companies spend billions on advertising and campaigning – because it works. Yes, we really are all just as susceptible to it as the next person.
In the early 1900s, a man called Edward Bernays perfected the art of public manipulation through advertising and PR. I think I’ll go into this in more detail in an upcoming chapter because it’s terrifying as hell, but until then I’m going to leave you with two of his most famous quotes:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
“Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.”
Manipulating culture is one way that we’re told what to eat and when. But there is another way the food industry subtly guides our food choices, and that’s through the manipulation of how our food tastes. Next time I’m going to chat more about this when I take a plunge into explaining the complete cluster fuck that is food production and why it’s often hard to say “no”, even when logic is screaming at us to.
I’m going to leave you with a couple of book summaries of things I read in 2020 if you enjoyed this topic and want to know go even deeper. Enjoy the rabbit hole, it’s delicious:
Thanks for sticking with this until the end. I know it has been a long one today so you deserve a coffee or a beer. Oh, and if you think I do too, click this Buy Me a Coffee link (or just sharing the blog with a like-minded human is a great help). Totally no pressure, I love your amazing support regardless.