Shifting from More to Better in Food Systems

Fruit HarvestWe have food systems that have done a fine job of meeting goals to provide abundant quantities of nourishment. But there is broad agreement that this abundant food supply has fueled global growth in obesity. So the question becomes what to do about it. Can we fix food systems by shifting from a mission to produce ever more food to producing better food?

Will we get there by encouraging people to eat more healthy foods?

Eat More Fruits and Veggies!

The Let’s Move! campaign worked really hard at promoting fruits and vegetables. But does promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables really do anything to reduce the prevalence of obesity?

In a structured program – like the DASH diet – replacing high calorie foods with fruits and vegetables can lead to individual weight loss. But simply promoting the consumption of more fruits and veggies does not lead to weight loss.

Another way to promote fruits and veggies is programs to increase the marketing of fresh fruits and vegetables in communities that have a history of poor access to these fresh, whole foods. However, a recent systematic review found “no relationship between the availability and accessibility of fruit and vegetable markets and weight-related behaviours and outcomes among children and adolescents.”

Adding More Healthy Stuff

While the evidence base is rather thin, it’s clear enough that simply promoting more consumption of the healthy stuff does not necessarily end with a better, healthier pattern of eating. It reminds us of ordering a salad to go with a cheeseburger, soda, and fries. Adding on healthy stuff simply results in the consumption of more food.

Professor Jennie Brand-Miller tells us:

“Clearly obesity prevalence can grow only in the midst of food abundance. In my mind, it will happen whether the foods are considered ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ or a mixture.

“As Kevin Hall showed in his Lancet 2011 paper, overconsumption of a small amount of calories each day explains the rise in obesity over past decades.”

A Better Way

Right now, we have inherited food systems tuned to provide abundant calories at a low cost. We need a fundamental shift in thinking about food systems – away from supplying ever more food and toward providing better food. Eat better must replace the current default food marketing message to eat more. Simply eating more “healthy” stuff will not lead us to better dietary health.

Click here for the study of access to fruit and vegetable markets in relationship to child obesity. For more on our broken food systems, click here, and then here for reflections on how they contribute to obesity.

Fruit Harvest, artwork by Cuno Amiet / WikiArt

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August 10, 2021