5 Myths About Healthy Eating

A helping of skepticism about the causes of Americans’ poor eating habits—and the effectiveness of political fixes

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to stay out of the Republican presidential race means that the American people will be spared months of discussion about his ample waistline and the bad example it sets. Nonetheless, with first lady Michelle Obama urging everyone to get moving, obesity remains a political hot potato, or maybe a tater tot. Below, a helping of skepticism about the causes of Americans’ poor eating habits—and the effectiveness of political fixes.

1. People in poor neighborhoods lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

 Walk into nearly any supermarket in the United States, and you are immediately confronted with abundance—bok choy, mangos, melons and avocados from across the globe—where a couple of varieties of apples and carrots once struggled to fill shelf space.

But not everyone has easy access to this fruity phantasmagoria. If you’re picking up ingredients for dinner at a gas station or a convenience store, you probably live in what eggheads have taken to calling a “food desert”—an ill-defined concept with powerful policy implications. A commonly cited 2009 statistic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has 23.5 million Americans living in poor urban and rural areas with limited access to fresh food.

Making those food deserts bloom is a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity agenda. This January found the first lady smiling for the cameras with Wal-Mart executives in Southeast Washington and declaring herself “more hopeful than ever” as she tours the nation’s produce sections.

But the prevalence of food deserts is almost certainly overstated. Not having a supermarket in your Zip code isn’t the last word in access to healthy food. According to the USDA, 93 percent of “desert” dwellers have access to a car. And farmers markets, often overlooked in surveys of rich and poor neighborhoods alike, have tripled since 1994.

Still, it does seem reasonable that making it easier to buy fresh food would improve what people eat. However, a study published this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the first to measure the impact of access to fresh food on diet, followed 5,000 people for over 15 years and found something surprising: Proximity to a grocery store or supermarket doesn’t increase consumption of healthy food. That suggests that a lack of convenient leafy greens isn’t the problem. Dinner menus are the product of subtle and pervasive food cultures, which can’t be tweaked from the East Wing.

The primary beneficiaries of tax incentives and other nudges aimed at abolishing food deserts are big grocery chains, not poor shoppers.

2. Advertising forces people to make unhealthy choices.

Television-bound children, their eyes awhirl with images of Tony the Tiger and his high-fructose friends, haunt the debate about junk-food advertising. And any parent who has ever experienced a 2-year-old’s grocery store meltdown would certainly like to have someone to blame. But the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has concluded that “current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity [excess weight] among children and youth.” Similar findings hold true for adults.

We don’t need advertisers to tell us that candy is delicious. Humans were big fans of fat and sugar long before the idiot box was invented. We’re programmed to go for the good (bad) stuff. Sure, Kellogg’s and General Mills have big advertising budgets, but they’re nowhere near as powerful as Darwin. Cracking down on advertisers gives politicians a scapegoat, but it doesn’t make kids, or their parents, healthier.

3. Eating healthy is too expensive.

 A dinner of hot dogs and Devil Dogs is undeniably cheap. But a bowl of beans and rice with a banana on the side is cheaper. A survey by the USDA found that, by weight, bottled water is cheaper than soda, low-fat milk is cheaper than high-fat, and whole fruit is cheaper than processed sweet snacks. Preparing a big pot of lentils for the week may be not be glamorous, but it’s much cheaper and not much more time-consuming than cooking up frozen pizza or mac and cheese.

The New York Times’ Mark Bittman—no fan of Frito-Lay—writes that the idea that junk food is cheaper than real food is “just plain wrong” and that blaming unhealthy habits on cost is incorrect. People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren’t doing so because they lack cheap, healthy options. Instead, it’s because they like junk food. Making junk food comparatively more pricey by tacking on taxes—a proposal that has been revived many times by Yale’s Kelly Brownell (and recently made into law in Denmark)—mostly means that people will pay more taxes, not eat more kale.

4. People need more information about what they eat.

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  • Old Mexican||

    I love the sign.

  • Brandon||

    I feel like I've seen this before...

  • ||

    Okay, so it was previously posted. I'm sitting here thinking my mass doses of the spice, melange, were finally working.

  • Ziggy||

    Folding space is only relevant, if you live in a tent.

  • Realist||

    It's always like Groundhog Day at Reason.

  • @healthy eating diet||

    Mexico?

  • anon||

    I don't even know what the fuck bok choy is.

  • anon||

    I obviously must live in a food desert.

  • Zeb||

    Weird looking cabbage.

  • ||

    If you ask me, cabbage is the weird lookin one. Bok choy doesn't look like a green brain.

  • Zeb||

    Weird in a relative sense, not absolute.

  • ||

    23.5 million Americans living in poor urban and rural areas with limited access to fresh food

    Ok, but what does the freezer section in those places look like? I'm gonna guess there are plenty of packages labeled "Jolly Green Giant", "Dole", etc.

    Frozen is just as healthy as fresh, and typically cheaper too, a real benefit to people living in "poor urban and rural areas."

    If only Mrs. Obama had access to this sort of (blindingly obvious) information.

    (also annoying: rural areas have limited access to EVERYTHING. It's sorta the defining characteristic of "rural" in comparison to "urban".)

  • anon||

    Ironically, most rural areas are farmland.

  • ||

    which covers access to food, but then you have to manage access to water, fertilizer, fuel, equipment, etc, which do not grow on trees, even out in The Country.

  • anon||

    Oh, I understand the logistics complications of living in a rural community; I was simply pointing out the irony of considering rural farmland a "food desert."

  • Zeb||

    Acres and acres of inedible corn and soybeans isn't exactly a cornucopia.

  • Brett||

    It's easy to grow a small plot of vegetables and to have few fruit trees, many families do.

  • BRM||

    Farms have gardens, and many of the small town people do as well. The problem for a lot of folks is that many of the gardens are owned by people too old to run them properly and process the food stuffs that could be grown from them.

    Farmers often commit most of their acreage to corn or other commodity grain rather than food for themselves due to need to maximize income to blunt the chonic capital swings that occur in farm country.

    With farm wives normally employed off the farm, the classic farm labor division is no longer viable. Most male farmers are also working at least one other job. In the day, farms could be set up so that the wife took care of the family food needs and gardens, while the husband grew the crops and tended to the maintenance of the farm structures. Now farm operations are the product of the husband, when he is not working his other job, and the family eats what ever the parents can put together.

    Amazing how much work went into running an acre sized vegetable garden. Between planting, weed control, harvesting, canning/processing, and then mulching/compost application and fall ground work, you could count on 10-15 hours/week. That meant Mom and the unemployed elsewhere on the farm kids. No stay at home mom plus kids in school or day care means no garden.

  • ||

    And farmers markets...have tripled since 1994.

    How the gov't hasn't already quashed that growth is beyond me.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    you mean squashed?

  • ||

    Before you decide to be the grammar police, use a dictionary.........

    Quashed:[kwosh]: Origin: quash [kwosh]
    verb (used with object)
    1. to put down or suppress completely; quell; subdue: to quash a rebellion.
    2. to make void, annul, or set aside (a law, indictment, decision, etc.).

  • Kevin||

    Pretty sure it was a pun.

  • Dude||

    What's that thing that people do when they pass their hand over their heads and make a sounds like a plane zooming by?

  • ||

    When was the last time you say a bok choy booth at a farmer's market tack on a sales tax? They're avoiding taxes! The fewkin 1% ingrates!

  • BakedPenguin||

    How the gov't hasn't already quashed that growth is beyond me.

    Oh, I'm sure there are plenty who are vigilantly working on "regulating" fruit & vegetable sales.

  • GroundTruth||

    They are working at it very hard. Around you can buy vegetables and fruits, and perhaps some baked good, but no meat / fish due to regs (so they say).

    And oh yeah, what they do have about twice as expensive as what you get at the local industrial supermarkets. (Although the quality is generally far better.)

  • Sparky||

    When the government starts mandating diet I'll start bagging my shit and sending it to them to show I'm following it.

  • ||

    You say that like it's rebellious, but I'm pretty sure that any gov't mandated diet would also be mandating the follow-up stool samples to ensure compliance.

  • FBI||

    Sir, you are under arrest for using the US Mail to deliver biological weapons across state lines. What kind of terrorist are you!?!??!?

  • anon||

    In all seriousness, would it be illegal to mail Obama a bag of my shit?

  • Sparky||

    I think as long as it's securely contained and properly labeled it would not be illegal.

  • ||

    There must be a way for medical professionals to send fecal matter in the mail. Find, then follow, the related Postal Regulations. YMMV.

  • ||

    Yes, you can. But to ship it, you'd have to be in compliance with 49 CFR's dangerous goods provisions and/or any IATA regulations if you intend on sending it on an airplane. It would most likely be labeled as medical waste. Yes, I've had to do this before..

  • ||

    They haven't stopped me yet.

  • Old Mexican||

    People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren’t doing so because they lack cheap, healthy options. Instead, it’s because they like junk food.


    Well, it is difficult to sell to a professional busybody the idea that people simply follow their choices and preferences, instead of beign manipulated by powers beyond them, for instance: the mighty Ad-Men.

    Even among the amateur busybodies the pervassive thought is that people make irrational choices, which is to say, they make choices that the busybodies simply do not like.

    Of course, when the Revolution comes, the busybodies will be the ones to be placed against the wall - I'm already polishing my Remington.

  • Chatroom Crank||

    When I am in charge the all night firing squads will sound like a popcorn machine.

  • Liberals||

    Too many people making too many choices. That's why we're pro choice on just one issue. Mighty Ad-Men, you say? That's why we hate the Citizens United ruling.

  • Audrey the Liberal||

    "That's why [liberals are] pro choice on just one issue." Conservatives are pro small government unless it involves same-sex marriage, abortion, drugs, pornography, etc...

  • Concerned Citizen||

    That's why I'm libertarian. I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social or personal goals.

  • nebby||

    Advertising doesn't work. That is why companies spend billions on it.

  • ||

    Yes. To convince people to buy Haagen Dazs who would otherwise have bought brussel sprouts.

  • Major Johnson||

    I live 10 miles from a very small grocery store, 20 miles from a large grocery store, much farther than people in urban "food deserts", yet I don't see people starving around here nor are they any fatter/skinnier than folks in town.

  • adam||

    That's because you all drive there in your big polluting SUVs.

  • ||

    Making junk food comparatively more pricey by tacking on taxes—a proposal that has been revived many times by Yale’s Kelly Brownell (and recently made into law in Denmark)—mostly means that people will pay more taxes, not eat more kale.

    Am I the only one who thinks this is actually what the politicians hope will happen?

  • Sparky||

    Nope, I'm with you.

  • ||

    We should follow the example of elephants--they eat only greens and look how slim they are!....oh, wait...

  • ||

    sure, but elephants don't have jackboots to prevent overeating*

    (*defined by a Permissible Caloric Intake Level, to be determined by Top.Men.)

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Sugar is poison. All forms (especially the stored kind in bread).

    Since I stopped the whole easy carb thing I have lost an enourmous portion of my former self. And I eat fast food 4 times a week.

  • Sparky||

    Inactivity is poison. More desk jobs = more fat people.

  • Ray Pew||

    Sugar is poison. All forms (especially the stored kind in bread).

    What about the kind that your body produces through gluconeogenesis?

  • ||

    That's just proof that the liver is a seditious organ that must be punished. That's why I drink a lot.

  • Bobarian||

    +1/5th

  • free2booze||

    And despite what "The Man" says, millions of years of human evolution suggests that animal fat is a healthy source of calories.

  • Mr. Mark||

    "And despite what "The Man" says, millions of years of human evolution suggests that animal fat is a healthy source of calories."

    Hmmmm...explains those pointy teeth toward the front corners...

  • Another Phil||

    Not really. Human evolution suggests that those who survived lived long enough to procreate. Good luck extrapolating anything specific about animal fat from that.

  • GroundTruth||

    "Sugar is poison"

    Huh?

    Arsenic is poison.
    Botulism toxin is poison.

    Sugar is food.

  • jtuf||

    The Miss America contest started as a way to promote healthy lifestyles by cheering fit bodies. After decades of liberals denouncing physical ideals, it's not surprising that obesity is rising.

  • adam||

    It really gets me that Michelle Obama's pet project is obesity. Does anyone else think she's a bit chunky?

  • Kristen||

    Amazonian =/= chunky

    Chick looks like she's well on her way to scary body builder.

    Now Dr. Phil, he's one that shouldn't be talking about fatties, if you ask me.

  • racist racist racist racist||

    Racist.

  • Sparky||

    I don't think she's chunky, I think she's a fat-ass.

  • free2booze||

    Thick, not chunky.

  • np||

    Yeah, it think so too. Actually the whole thick/chunky/big-boned thing is just an excuse. You either have fat or muscle.

    The extra under arm "meat" she has ain't meat, it's flab. Muscular triceps don't look like that.

  • Bobarian||

    She's the perfect body weight for a klingon

  • Kristen||

  • ||

    How heroic! Bush would've stayed there for centuries!

    I'm surprised he's not doing it closer to the election, because if Iraq goes unstable after our departure, well, it's possible some GOP fascist lying liars might suggest he made a mistake. Which is unpossible, of course.

  • Mark||

    "Eating healthy is too expensive"

    Healthy is an adjective, used to modify a noun. So, in the the above section heading, healthy should modify a noun, such as food.

  • ||

    Right, but "healthy" in this case is used as an adverb and not an adjective.

  • ||

    That has always bugged me too! If you want to use it as an adverb, it should be "healthily" or "healthfully" no? To me the phrase: "we eat healthy" or whatever variation thereof sounds as dumb as "you done good."

  • Sparky||

    Well it's not our fault you're Canadian.

  • ||

    I did a quick Google and it does seem to be us damn furriners complaining about "eat healthy." So maybe we should get off our high, job-stealing horses and embrace the flexibility of American English, is what you're implying? How little you understand of the depths of Foreign Evil.

  • ||

    Why is it Canadian when it's Canada, not Canadia? Maybe Canadan would be better. Sounds like Caladan, which makes it cool and science-fictiony.

  • Apatheist||

    Language, especially English, is flexible. If something such as this is in common use then there is nothing wrong with it. The purpose of language is communicate, structure is only useful to facilitate that but in this case everybody here understood the meaning.

  • Mr. Mark||

    I oppose furthering the lingo of the busy-bodies.

    If they cannot use standard English, then they don't need to be worrying themselves about the diets of others.

  • ||

    +1 commenting snarky

  • Mr. Mark||

    Dear fellow Americans,

    M.Y.O.F.B.

    Sincerely,

    Mr. Mark

  • Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom...||

    KMW makes some good points in this article, but she misses the elephant in the room: The government knows a lot less than it thinks it does about what is a healthy diet.

    Think saturated fat will give you a heart attack? Read Gary Taubes' books debunking this view.

    Think you should minimize cholesterol? See Chris Masterjohn's well-researched articles on this subject.

    Think "healthy" polyunsaturated fats and whole grains will help you live to 120? Read dissenting views from Stephan Guyenet and Paul Jaminet.

    The authors cited above are controversial, and I don't agree with everything they've written. (E.g. I am not a low-carber like Taubes.) Nonetheless, they are all deeply versed in the scientific literature on diet and nutrition, and any fair reading of their work will leave you skeptical that the government knows any more about these subjects than it knows about economics (i.e. almost nothing).

  • ||

    It's not a myth. There are food deserts all over, but I believe it's a cultural thing. I traveled thru Europe for two weeks on business and could not believe how crappy the food tasted when I got back to the US. My first impression was that large food companies can maximize their profit by simply minimizing their cost with the cheapest, most diluted raw ingredients possbile. It's obvious once you have a chance to see it objectively. So the moral of the story is to eat close to the farm.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    I agree. The more food is processed, the more filler is added and the worse it gets.

  • Audrey the Liberal||

    No my friend, the moral of the story is to let people make their own decisions.

  • ||

    What? We are talking about food, not debating free will. Go back to McDonald's and choose between your big mac and fries!

  • Mr. Mark||

    No, not profits!

    What will we do? Businesses keep earning evil profits...oh, my goodness gracious and heavens to Betsy. Next thing you know businesses will be employing people and producing goods and services that people voluntarily decide to purchase. Somebody stop the madness!

    As far as eating "close to the farm" goes...there's always cantaloupe!

    Eat whatever you want. Just kill it first.

  • ||

    You have misinterpreted the post. The point was not that there is anything wrong with food companies distilling raw materials until there's no nutrition left in order to maximize profits. They can do anything they want. The point was you don't have to be a sheep and join the herd of fat, unhealthy sluggards by eating all the crap that's marketed for the lazy consumer. The simple rule of "eat close to the farm" is easy to remember and simply implies that fresh food, picked or killed (doesn't matter) is better for you than processed/over-processed food. I guess it doesn't even have to be local, but the local pork I eat seems to taste a whole lot better than the stuff in the grocery store.

  • JMW||

    The simple rule of "eat close to the farm" is easy to remember and simply implies that fresh food, picked or killed (doesn't matter) is better for you than processed/over-processed food.

    Gonna be real tough to do that if you live in an area ill-suited to agriculture.

    Like the arctic circle for example.

  • ||

    ...or the inner city. I think you're starting to get the picture now, Sherlock.

  • Mr. Mark||

    I apologize for misinterpreting your post.

    Still, just personally, I like processed food. I like preservatives. I like fat. I like salt. I like foods cooked in grease. I like just about everything the Health Nazis don't want anybody to eat. What I don't get is why the Health Nazis can't stand that I'm not one of them and don't want to change my diet. If they want to run commercials (that they pay for) trying to make the case for Health Nazi approved foods, then fine. If they want to wander the streets preaching their food religion, that's fine. But why do they insist on things like junk food taxes, trans fat bans, and government jihads against condiments? Why should my favorite foods be criminalized?

  • Another Phil||

    It's obvious once you have a chance to see it objectively.

    Taste is objective?

    So the moral of the story is to eat close to the farm.

    No, the moral of the story is mind your own business, busybody.

  • ||

    Funny. Go get a croissant from Au Bon Pain and shove it in your mouth. It will keep you quiet while you ponder how it tastes like wood pulp. Is that subjective enough for you?

  • GroundTruth||

    Huh? I just traveled in central Europe. Some of the food was excellent (like the coffee and the chocolate)... wait... do they grow that in Europe?

    The meats were generally pretty underwhelming. Nice and local.

    Sorry, your argument just does not hold water. Local means nothing. Care of growing (anywhere)and selection are the thing.

    (Regarding selection, when I grow tomatoes, the pretty ones (about 10 %) go into salads. The other 90% or so wind up in the pot and get reduced to sauce for the winter.)

  • seguin||

    When I lived over there (Italy) I generally avoided beef. It was all local, and mostly awful.

  • Amakudari||

    "Things in the US should be more like my European bizcation!"

    Thanks for the insight!

  • ||

    The Post published a letter to the editor crabbing about the column:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....story.html

    Like Ms. Marsh, I was appalled to see someone with an agenda writing in the outlook section of the paper. The 5 myths column should remain committed to objective, straght-down-the-line reporting, like the current "5Myths about Dodd-Frank", written by...Dodd.

  • Mr. Mark||

    Where do twits like Abigail come from??

    Yeah...if it wasn't for "food availability, marketing or costs" I'd spend my time eating tofu and drinking carrot juice. Sure thing.

    Excuse me while go get a bacon cheeseburger and a bucket of fries.

  • Amakudari||

    Preparing a big pot of lentils for the week may be not be glamorous, but it’s much cheaper and not much more time-consuming than cooking up frozen pizza or mac and cheese.

    One of my housemates from my senior year in college would wait til chickpeas and ground beef went on sale at the supermarket and stockpile both in the freezer. As soon as he had enough, he'd make a giant stew and put it in the freezer. He drank water. I'm pretty sure he could "survive" on $10 a week.

  • ||

    I have volunteered at a community garden in a small Virginia college town for the last 15 years. The garden is sandwiched between low income housing and federal housing projects with about 300 townhouse style units. The garden grows a wide variety of seasonal produce and a good many varieties of flowers. Interest from the surrounding residents is minimal at best, although frequently children under 12 are sent over to play with the hippies. At least there is no theft of garden tools or vegetables, most of which end up at the city food co-op at the other side of the tracks. One Saturday, the Food Not Bombs group from the college set up a stand to hand out meat free and dairy free food to the low income neighbors. I told them that it would be a hard sell. All they could give away was bagels.

  • Peanut Machine||

    Thanks for interesting post. I’ve never read about this utility before.

  • cheap jordan 2U||

    good

  • vegetable oil press||

    Not providing clear examples as to why you're firing this person (Lack of documentation will definitely set you up for a legal battle)

  • mosquito nettings||

    On the internet, no one knows you're a dog - and while they might suspect it based on something they find on the internet, they damn well better be able to independently verify it.

  • ||

    I love healthy eating !

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