Why That Atlantic Story About Junk Food and Obesity Is Hypocritical

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 17 2013 6:13 PM

War on Foodies

The hypocrisy behind the Atlantic’s call for better junk food.

A photo of a McDonalds' Big Mac hamburger, November 2, 2010.
How long before a whole-wheat, low-calorie, sugar-free Big Mac?

Photo by Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

Judging from its headline, David H. Freedman’s “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” looks like the apotheosis of a trollish Atlantic cover story. Freedman’s titular thesis actually isn’t such a stretch: The fact that junk-food manufacturers are trying to reformulate their products with fewer calories, and thus might help improve our health, has been debated and discussed at length. (For a long—if somewhat credulous—take on this idea, see John Seabrook’s 2011 piece in The New Yorker.) But the July/August issue of the Atlantic whets this topic for a culture war by adding in a broadside on the mainstream foodie movement.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Freedman spends the first half of his 10,500-word essay barraging Whole Foods types with ridicule: It’s hypocrisy, he says, when Mark Bittman decries the nation’s mass cuisine, then teaches us to fry corn in bacon grease; it’s elitism, he says, when gourmet eaters in Los Angeles turn up their noses at KFC, then treat themselves to cornmeal-crusted eggplant parmesan at Café Gratitude. And he’s right. Salt isn’t any better for your health if it’s hand-harvested from tidal flats, and pork fat doesn’t shed any calories when it’s shipped over from Iberia. Fancy food and junk food are not as different from each other as we’d like to think.

For Freedman, though, the foodie fear of processed snacks represents a major threat to public health. Even if the Bittman way of eating were superior, he says, it could not be foisted on the obese underclass in the near-term future or without tremendous effort. Michael Pollan and his disciples (the “Pollanites”) are simply out of touch, and the pillars of their approach to fighting obesity—taxing soda, irrigating food deserts, promoting local and organic farms—are much too difficult to put in place. Worse, the obsession with what’s “wholesome” distracts us from a better way to fight obesity: the junk-food cure.

An angry backlash to this thesis wasn’t unexpected. “Here are several articles that have been written in response to my recent article,” wrote Freedman on his blog, Fat & Skinner. “They are, not surprisingly, highly critical of it.” I’ll bet that Freedman knows the science better than many of the people he annoyed: He’s a smart and thorough researcher, a hard-core skeptic who has worked to probe the swamps of epidemiology and clinical research in search of solid ground. But while his anti-foodie tirade is more sure-footed than many of the wild lunges of his critics, his most important point—that trendy ways of eating keep us fat—seems a little muddy.

The problem is that Freedman’s skepticism can be pick-and-choosy. He doesn’t think that buying food at Trader Joe’s will make us thinner, or that a farmer’s market can transform behavior in a whole community, or that cutting subsidies for corn will reverse America’s long-standing gut inflation. These arguments he discards for lack of evidence—but when it comes to slimming down the masses with junk-food engineering, Freedman’s fine to cross his fingers and hope it all works out.

When fast-food restaurants reformulate their menu items with whole-grain buns or less sugar—when they concoct a slimmer Whopper or a lighter Egg McMuffin—Freedman says they’re putting customers “on track to eliminate a few hundred calories a day from his or her diet—the critical threshold needed for long-term weight loss.” The arithmetic of food never fits such simple equations, though. Cut the calories in one food, and consumers tend to compensate with another. This creates a major problem—or at least a major question—for the better-junk-food theory of public health. Dramatically increased demand for diet soda since the early 1980s has corresponded with dramatically increased rates of obesity across the population, and randomized controlled studies find mixed weight results when people switch over to zero-calorie beverages. Soda companies have lately tried to market reduced-calorie versions of their drinks—in line with the gradualist approach described in Freedman’s piece—but no one has made a careful study of whether these can help with weight loss.

There’s a more concerning problem with the piece, however, and one that would undermine its central premise even if you bought his grousing over Michael Pollan (which I do) and his faith in junk-food engineers (which I don’t). Freedman argues that a whole-foods ideology actually deprives the poor of healthy snacks: “The more the idea that processed food should be shunned no matter what takes hold … the less incentive fast-food joints will have to continue edging away from the fat- and problem-carb-laden fare beloved by their most loyal customers.” Later, he argues, “Continuing to call out Big Food on its unhealthy offerings, and loudly, is one of the best levers we have … but let’s call it out intelligently, not reflexively.” Too much shaming might scare off the junk-food scientists at the moment when we need them most.

But for all his faith in evidence and common sense, Freedman can’t provide a speck of evidence that reflexive shaming from the Pollanites has slowed the pace of junk-food innovation. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe they’re among its leading inspirations. When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi announced in 2010 that her company would cut the average amount of added sugar per serving of its products by one-quarter in the next few years, she was responding to a shifting landscape of consumption and a philosophy of eating that was filtering down from foodies to everyone else. Didn’t the local, organic, cornmeal-crusted ideology of the Pollanites give rise to the whole idea of making junk food less junky? Consider how fast-food giants have coopted the term “fresh” to evoke foodies’ obsession with local, organic produce. And this isn’t a new phenomenon: In a critique of Freedman’s piece, Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker points out that in 1990, three of the biggest fast-food chains acquiesced to pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (who pushed a Pollan-like agenda before Pollan did), and switched their fry baskets from beef tallow to vegetable oil. (By the way, that early push for better junk food—which included grilled-chicken sandwiches at Burger King and low-fat milk at McDonald’s—did not slow the nation’s weight gain.)

It’s trickle-down gastronomics: The rich decide what’s healthy and what isn’t, then pass their habits down the line. Since the rules on healthy eating drift from one fixation to the next, the habits of the leisure class are in a state of constant flux: Old ideas of what to eat—low-fat ice cream, diet soda, whatever—are shunted from the bobos to the masses, and new ones take their place. The intelligentsia tend to eat according to the latest fashions, so we say (as Freedman does) that they’re “increasingly health-conscious,” as if that quality would ever ebb from one generation to the next. With each new wellness fad—from buttermilk to baby vegetables, corn flakes to kale—we feel as if we’ve ascended to a higher circle of enlightenment. We’re increasingly health-conscious these days … just like always. This historical pattern is missing from Freedman’s piece.

“ ‘New’ foods replace ‘old, outdated’ foods,” writes anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. “ ‘Pure’ foods replace what are called ‘impure’ foods. ‘Science’ triumphs.” White sugar, for instance, started as a pleasure of the rich, then passed into the working class and across the ocean to the places where the coarser, more traditional varieties—gur, jaggery, panela, raspadura—were soon supplanted. Now trendsetters have turned against refinement, and these untreated forms, once dismissed, are taking hold in fancy kitchens. “Soon enough, of course, the old foods will reappear, in attractive, modern and expensive packages, whereupon they will be touted as ‘natural,’ ” Mintz declares. “Thus the market triumphs again.”

Freedman neglects to take this process into consideration, claiming that the foodie fascinations of today won’t ever go mainstream, or that they’ll impede other “healthy” ways of eating by making junk-food engineering seem pointless. But we’ve seen the trickle-down at work in just the last few years: An upscale fascination with “natural” products has lately dribbled into industrial food labs, where scientists now work hard to reconfigure chips and sodas for the mass consumer without synthetic additives. (Never mind that no one in the business really thinks synthetics are unsafe, or that natural versions would be any better for your health. They’re just following the trends.) Freedman cites this work, in fact, on formulating stevia—a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that started out at stores like Whole Foods—as an example of the “high-tech, anti-obesity food engineering” that could maybe save the world. (Let’s hope those hateful foodies don’t get in the way!)

In this respect, I believe that Freedman’s piece is wrong—or, to use one of his favorite phrases—“utterly wrong.” There are greater crimes than this, a thesis that doesn’t quite make sense, but what makes his wrongness annoying is the fact that in the past few years Freedman has become a leading expert on the subject of when and why everyone else is wrong.

In 2010, he published Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them, a disquisition on what he sees as an epidemic of imprecision and loose facts. There he worries over bogus experts on obesity (and other topics), who mislead us when they “try to force various simple answers onto a complex question—no wonder we just end up being misled.” He’s fond of pointing out that (according to medical researcher John Ioannidis) at least two-thirds of all the facts we find in medical journals are most likely incorrect, and so it follows that any argument or policy—no matter how vapid or absurd—can be backed up with at least one published study from the literature.*

So how does Freedman think we might escape this morass of misinformation? An appendix to his book offers tips for sussing out degrees of wrong. Here’s one hallmark of an opinion that you shouldn’t trust: “It’s provocative. … We’re tickled by the surprise, and at the same time it may ring true because we’re so used to finding out that what we’ve all been led to believe is right is actually wrong.” Got that, Atlantic readers? Maybe you shouldn’t trust a piece that gives a simple answer to the problem of obesity—especially if it seems surprising or provocative.

Health journalists are taking advantage of the wrongness problem,” Freedman went on to say, in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. “Presented with a range of conflicting findings for almost any interesting question, reporters are free to pick those that back up their preferred thesis—typically the exciting, controversial idea that their editors are counting on.” As exemplars of this dodgy mode he cited Tara Parker-Pope and Gary Taubes, two other thoughtful journalists who have written long articles on obesity with provocative and surprising arguments. Parker-Pope suggested that long-term weight loss is nearly impossible, and Taubes wondered whether sugar might be the biggest problem with our diet. “This reporting has been focused on catchy, simplistic—and utterly wrong—ideas,” Freedman said.

It’s almost like he hadn’t penned his own catchy and simplistic take on obesity two years before, in a 2011 cover story for Scientific American. (The headline to that piece, “How to Fix the Obesity Crisis,” might remind you of the wording on the front of this month’s Atlantic: “The Cure for Obesity.”) Back then he thought the fix for fatness would be one that’s based on behavioral psychology (thus the title of his blog, Fat & Skinner). That means traditional interventions such as calorie-counting and weight-loss counseling, modeled on the Weight Watchers program and spruced up with recent findings in the field. What we need most, he argued, is a government-subsidized “experiment in mass behavior change,” a grand project that “would be our best shot at fixing obesity.”

To support this provocative, surprising idea, Freedman cited three studies showing modest, long-term effects of joining Weight Watchers: on the order of a 3-percent shift of body weight, or about 5 pounds for a 165-pound man. (More recent work has found that adding “behavioral weight loss” techniques to the standard Weight Watchers program, as Freedman proposed, offers no additional benefits.) He also endorsed Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, subsidies of fruits and vegetables, soda taxes, and several other progressive policies that he now, according to his Atlantic story, considers unlikely to succeed.

I don’t mean to say that Freedman’s ideas are inconsistent—we may as well have healthy junk food and Weight Watchers, too. But there’s something off about the way he calls out others for the tricks he pulls himself. He’ll dole out catchy, simplistic, and counterintuitive ideas, back them up (or not) with cherry-picked studies, and then attack his peers for doing the same. The foodies can be hypocrites, sure, but so can the people who write about them.

Correction, July 18, 2013: This article originally misspelled the surname of medical researcher John Ioannidis. (Return to the corrected sentence.)