When I think back to elementary school, few experiences return as vividly as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the program of choice for keeping a new generation drug and alcohol-free. As a kindergartner, I remember looking at the older kids wearing their black DARE shirts—the red lettering smattered, almost like blood (which is cool to a 5-year-old boy). I couldn’t wait to get my own.
The DARE curriculum started as soon as we entered second grade and, assuming it was better not to teach 7-year-olds about crack and heroin, the overwhelming emphasis was put upon cigarettes. We’d role-play ways to say no to smoking. Police officers and other speakers regularly came in proclaiming every disturbing consequence of smoking cigarettes: “cigarette smokers are addicted, each cigarette is 11 minutes off your life, second-hand smoke is deadly, smokers have stinky breath and yellow teeth, you won’t get married, it’s a slow, painful death, smoking makes you part of Al Qaeda." You know, stuff like that.
By the fourth grade, we completed the DARE course and were rewarded with a pizza party, the DARE t-shirt, and a DARE card. This was the late 90s and, believe it or not, our parents still allowed us all to walk home alone. Empowered by our new purchasing power, we’d run across the street to Panera Bread where the DARE card could be presented for a free soda.
The Fight Against Big Tobacco
Our communities have invested heavily in fighting "big tobacco" in a valiant effort to save a generation from addiction to cigarettes. Whether it was DARE or any of the many powerful ad campaigns, the effectiveness of this anti-smoking movement is undeniable. According to the CDC, the percentage of adult smokers has consistently declined since 1965, when 42.4% of adults smoked. As of 2014, that number was only 16.8%. Likewise, the number of students smoking, which hit 36.4% in 1997, was down to 15.7% by 2013.
Americans looked at the evidence and determined that a cultural normalization of smoking was needlessly killing millions. Americans banded together to fight an intensely profitable tobacco industry. Smoking will probably never fully go away, but today smokers are the outliers. They engage in an activity with intense scrutiny, where they are constantly confronted with the deep consequences of choosing to smoke.
In direct contrast to these strides in the fight against big tobacco, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Report shows the destructive, deadly consequences of American eating habits. According to the report, “About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, are overweight, and have obesity.” These preventable diseases have many causes. They are exacerbated by increasingly sedentary lifestyles, but American nutritional norms are the primary culprits. Processed foods have become the standard for each meal and have infiltrated every event in modern life.
Consequently, in the United States today, greater than 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 6 children are obese. Childhood obesity has more than tripled since 1970 and is only getting worse. In fact, a Harvard study projects that over 57% of youth ages 2-19 will be obese by the time they are 35. The cost of obesity in the US economy is between $147 and $210 billion annually. This epidemic is more widespread than smoking ever was and is poised to grow in the foreseeable future.
The Indoctrination of the Western Diet
The western diet has deadly and debilitating health consequences comparable to smoking. When you add entrenched patterns of sedentary living, the costs are probably greater. Add to this the intense isolation and mental degradation of smartphone proliferation and you have a terrifying mental, emotional, and physical health crisis devastating communities across the world. Undoubtedly, the way we normalize and program these patterns in youth today is every bit as destructive as handing them a pack of cigarettes. Yet, no one acts.
Whether cigarettes or the western diet is more deadly and destructive is of no consequence. Both have tremendous costs. What bears consideration is why our communities are united and successful combating cigarettes, while every youth institution is staunchly complicit in the normalization of processed, convenience food. Remember the DARE card?
Whenever we want to provide youth incentives, we opt for junk food! Schools are filled with vending machines, PTA moms selling cookies, and sports teams loudly promoting their fast-food and soda sponsors. Camps and sports teams operate under the assumption that the only way to have kids show up and comply is a never-ending buffet of candy and refreshments.
Even the home institution is saturated with processed “kids” foods. Parents have bought the narrative that Pop-Tarts and Cinnamon Toast Crunch are normal, acceptable breakfasts for kids and that every lunch should feature pudding, white bread, sugar bomb yogurt, and chips. Not to mention that dessert accompanies every dinner, and that candy and soda should be made available at every destination.
Perhaps our stubbornness to admit the costs of mass junk food is the result of vague labeling. What does “western diet” even mean? This broad category typically is used to describe the increased reliance on processed foods in the United States that is now spreading across the world.
These feature foods lacking fiber and healthy fat while being packed with refined sugars and saturated fats. This is food that could not exist without laboratories and which our human biology could have never expected mass exposure. In short, it's food that isn’t real. It is food that we create through complex chemistry.
The Social Role of the Western Diet
For most, there is a social stigma surrounding cigarettes that probably saves more people from smoking than any other factor. Right, wrong, or indifferent, humans almost always adopt self-destructive behaviors when there is social pressure to conform. We live in the age of shame policing, but social criticism can be a very constructive tool.
While cigarettes invite what could be thought of as constructive shame, healthy eating is the opposite. In almost every situation, you must work harder and be willing to be different in order not to eat overly processed foods. People will badger you about not having any donuts at the staff meeting. On Becky’s last workday, you’ll be a self-righteous jerk for not eating cake. Parents will think you have a problem when you ask them not to give your kids soda at a sleep-over. One could wonder who is more of a pariah: the health nut, or the smoker?
What accounts for the different social reactions between our health crisis and smoking?
Poor nutrition has been a harder nut to crack for a few reasons:
- We have to eat. We do not have to smoke, so it is easy to say “don’t do that” (even though substitution seems a better tactic for breaking bad habits). There is no problem with eating—it’s wonderful. This seems obvious, but it is often lost to the popular health narratives and their insistence on burning the demon calories. The issues lie in the confusion that surrounds what to eat.
- Poor nutrition is a less concrete issue. There is a lot of wiggle room for the food giants to entrench us in a web of poor health. There are a lot more variations of food with a lot more gray area between very healthy and very unhealthy. People hear sugar is the problem, only to hear a week later that sugar is great—it's in plants like fruit, after all. They hear they should eat only meat and fats, and then they hear they need to avoid meat completely. They hear calories are the problem and opt for diet soda and non-fat, sugar spiked breakfast bars. Having no idea what the other days of their week look like, they are confused by a dinner date with their fit friends who drink and indulge in the new ice-cream parlor. The contradictory advice becomes more reason not to care.
- We don’t think eating habits are addictive. You wouldn’t hear parents clamoring for kids to have cigarettes in moderation, but the food giants have been very successful in avoiding the label of addiction while taking every opportunity to confuse. The reality is that studies on lab rats show rats will eat to Oreos far past the point of satiation. In another study, rats that had been addicted to cocaine and morphine chose saccharin, a calorie-free sweetener, 94% of the time. Even after upping the dose of cocaine, rats still preferred the sensation of intense sweetness.
Distressed by the complexity, millions are comforted by an illusion that the western diet is “normal." Convenience foods and fast food have become interwoven in the routines of American family life to such a degree that one can scarcely imagine a group of people coming together without making sure more than a week’s worth of sugar is on hand.
If you are interested in eating better, read, avoid extremes, and explore the prominent eating habits of areas where people live long healthy lives. It has been far easier to rally people to a clear enemy, like the cigarette companies, with an obvious solution: don’t smoke. Rather than flailing madly in an attempt to defeat every health threat, let's identify the greatest villain and ride that momentum going forward.