Skip to site content

A Toxic Food Environment

Both overeating and severe hunger contribute to an increasingly “toxic” food environment, according to a recent article.

“While hunger is a more acute problem and should be the highest nutritional concern, overeating is the fastest growing form of malnourishment in the world,” wrote Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil in the July-August issue of World Watch.

Debilitating myths about hunger and overeating contribute to the continuation of worldwide malnutrition, according to the article.

The “scarcity myth” prohibits effective responses to hunger. Providing food for the hungry becomes a quick fix, and the problem soon re-surfaces.

“Ubiquitous images of emaciated people surrounded by parched land have served to reinforce the single largest myth about malnutrition: that hunger results from a national scarcity of food,” wrote Halweil and Gardner.

Despite the pictures of parched land, 80 percent of starving people live in countries that produce food surpluses, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization, cited in the article.

“Hands down, the major cause of hunger is poverty–a lack of access to the goods and services essential for a healthy life,” wrote Gardner and Halweil. “Where people are hungry, it’s a good bet they have little income, cannot gain title to land or qualify for credit, have poor access to health care, or have little or no education.”

Worldwide in 1998, the number of those unemployed and those being paid less than a living wage overlapped with the billion people who were underweight, “and for whom hunger is a chronic experience.”

Even in countries where immense hunger exists, overeating is becoming a problem and creating an “overeating phenomena” worldwide, according to the article.

The “prone-to-obesity” myth is damaging because it prohibits effective action in preventing overeating and obesity.

There is a “proliferation of high-calorie, high-fat foods that are widely available, heavily promoted, low in cost and nutrition, and served in huge portions,” wrote Gardner and Halweil.

This proliferation has created “a toxic food environment,” said Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell in the article.

“Failure to recognize the existence of this negative food environment has created the widespread misconception that individuals are entirely to blame for overeating,” wrote Gardner and Halweil.

Attention is focused on curing obesity, rather than preventing it, according to the article. There are fad diet books and designer “foods,” such as olestra, that provide “worry-free consumption of nutritionally empty snacks.”

More education about health and nutrition can help fight obesity and the myths that surround overeating, according to the article.

“Countering an increasingly ubiquitous toxic food environment will require dispelling the myths that surround overeating,” wrote Gardner and Halweil. “Governments will have to recognize the existence of a health epidemic of overeating, and will have to work to counter the social pressures that promote poor eating habits.”

An example of a social pressure to overeat is “supersizing” at fast food restaurants. In the 1950’s a standard serving of Coca-Cola was a 6.5 ounce bottle. Today, the standard is 20 ounces.

Health problems related to obesity cost 12 percent ($118 billion) of the United States annual health budget, wrote Gardner and Halweil.

“The effects of poor nutrition run deep into every aspect of a community, curtailing performance at school and work, increasing the cost of health care, and reducing health and well-being.”

Visit World Watch at http://www.worldwatch.org/mag/index.html