The Birthday Party

More Food, Less Joy, and Shorter Lives

Food is medicine, say folks in certain food policy circles, and we have an abundant supply of it – especially in the U.S. So why is it true in this country that we have more food, find less joy in it, and live shorter lives?

Eating More, Enjoying It Less, Losing Years of Life

American dietary patterns, labeled aptly as SAD (Standard American Diet), are notoriously unhealthy, but deliver a great deal of calories. A recent Food Insight report tells us that Americans are eating more continuously every day because snacking behaviors are more pervasive than ever. Stopping to enjoy a meal with friends and family is more of a challenge.

Life Expectancy at Birth, Chart from Peterson KFF

Snacking on all that cheap processed food does not add up to a high quality of life and health. In fact, America is falling behind all other wealthy countries in life expectancy. In a new report from NPR, Selena Simmons-Duffin explains the systemic problems we face:

“Americans eat more calories and lack universal access to health care. But there’s also higher child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the way cities are designed makes access to good food more difficult.”

Thus it’s not surprising that America is nowhere close to the top of the heap in Gallup’s new data ranking countries according to the happiness of its people. Finland has the top spot, while the U.S. comes in at number 15. If you look at the gap between the happiest and unhappiest citizens, inequity surfaces and America falls even further – to number 34.

Healthy Eating and Unhealthy Lives

So yes, we talk a lot about healthy eating and consume plenty of so-called “healthy” food. But despite having more of that healthy food at our fingertips, we find ourselves with less joy and less health.

Increasingly, we see a profound disconnect between the marketing of supposedly healthy foods and the health outcomes that its consumption produces. Health claims on food are becoming more common. FDA is even working on a little logo that food makers can use to convey a “healthy” claim – along with new guidance issued Friday for putting nutrition advice on food labels.

In sum, all the talk about healthy eating is just that – talk. Marketing buzz. It serves mainly to sell us more food. But it doesn’t promote health because deeper issues of equity in healthcare, wealth, education, and opportunities leave us divided and joyless. This is a gap that no amount of “comfort food” can fill – even if we slap a “healthy” label on it.

Click here for more from Simmons-Duffin on life expectancy in the U.S. For perspective on the disparities that afflict us and how we might reduce them, click here.

The Birthday Party, painting by John Singer Sargent / WikiArt

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March 26, 2023

One Response to “More Food, Less Joy, and Shorter Lives”

  1. March 30, 2023 at 1:07 pm, Elizabeth said:

    That report from NPR on life expectancy was fantastic.