Obesity is not the only problem associated with a processed junk food diet. On the flip side, you have malnutrition. According to the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, Ph.D., the impact of processed food on public health is “alarming.” As reported by Civil Eats:25
“Earlier this fall [Elver] told the United Nations General Assembly that, despite all the high-profile work being done around the globe to fight hunger and malnutrition, ‘the world is not on track to reach globally agreed nutrition targets.’
Addressing leaders from around the globe, Elver was not afraid to name the culprit.
‘Today’s food systems are dominated by industrial food production and processing’ … coupled with trade policies that result in ‘large food corporations … flooding the global market with nutrient poor yet energy-dense foods that are relatively inexpensive.’”
A lot of people don’t know this, but the right to adequate food is part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights26 and the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.27 In countries that have ratified them, these are both legally binding agreements that provide a framework for legal action when these rights are violated. Curiously, the U.S. never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.
In participating countries, lawsuits against the government have led to a variety of food entitlement programs for children and other vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities and prisoners. Most importantly, these agreements also address nutrition, not just availability of cheap junk food. In other words, they provide a human rights’ framework for access to REAL food, not just denatured “belly-fillers.”
Real Food Access and Health Go Hand in Hand
As explained by Civil Eats:
“Why the need for civil society groups to sue governments over the right to food? A significant part of what’s gone wrong, Elver explains, is that international trade policies have allowed large food corporations to sell lots of soda, fast food and other high-calorie, nutrient-poor products made with cheap refined grains, corn sweetener and vegetable oil … [M]uch of this production is also controlled globally — in terms of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides — by a very few large companies.”
According to Elver, lack of access to nutritious food is an indicator of socioeconomic inequality, and when a bag of chips is cheaper than an apple, this inequality ripples out into our health statistics. As noted by Elver, “We now know that this kind of highly sugar intensive, saturated fat heavy and salty food really makes you sick.”
The fact that the U.S. never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights means that in the U.S., the right to food is a policy issue, not a human right, and Americans cannot take the government to court over lack of food access or lack of nutritional value. According to Elver, access to programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for underprivileged women and children would also be quite different if the U.S. supported the right to food concept.
Elver also stresses that in order to protect and ensure the human right to adequate food, the global community must move away from the industrial model toward more sustainable systems. We simply cannot sustain a global population on commodity crops like corn and soy, and the United States’ health statistics is a perfect demonstration of what happens when you try.
More Children Suffering From Type 2 Diabetes
With the rise of obesity has come a rise in the number of American children who suffer from type 2 diabetes. In a nationwide representative study28 between 2001 and 2009, researchers found that while the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes increased, the rate of increase of the preventable type 2 diabetes was significantly higher than type 1.
Dr. Robin Goland, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center, calls these “big numbers” and went on to say:29
“In my career, type 1 diabetes was a rare disease in children and type 2 disease didn’t exist. And I’m not that old.”
Indeed, once thought to be an exclusive adult metabolic disorder, in the past 20 years, type 2 diabetes in children has jumped from less than 5 percent of all newly diagnosed cases to more than 20 percent, and obesity plays an important role in this trend.30
Childhood obesity leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes more quickly than in adults, and is associated with both metabolic and cardiovascular complications in children and adolescents.31 Severe insulin resistance is also associated with an increase in morbidity and mortality in young adults and a higher risk of hypertension, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and metabolic syndrome.
This rising tide of children suffering from obesity and type 2 diabetes suggests we can expect ever increasing indirect and direct cost of care and loss of life in coming years.
Junk Food Kills
The root cause of most health problems can be traced back to a poor diet. Most Americans spend the majority of their food dollars on processed foods, most of which contain one or more of the three ingredients that promote the most chronic disease, namely corn, soy and sugar beets, all three of which are also typically genetically engineered (GE) and contaminated with toxic pesticides.
In short, processed foods are killing people prematurely, and if we want to reverse the current disease and mortality trends in the U.S., we have to get serious about cleaning up our food supply and increasing access to real food.
The processed food industry is responsible for creating a “lifestyle disease epidemic” the World Health Organization (WHO) says is “a much greater public health threat than any other epidemic known to man.”32 Just as agriculture has become one of the most significant environmental polluters rather than being a leading environmental steward, the food industry has become a leading source of ill health rather than a source of nutrition, health and wellbeing.
In my view, this is thoroughly unacceptable. Marketing junk food to kids and knowingly increasing diabetes, obesity, cancer andheart disease rates is unacceptable. The ever-increasing use of toxic pesticides that contaminate food and destroy the soil is unacceptable. Creating vast amounts of pollution and antibiotic resistance is unacceptable.
Spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat legislation and regulation that would protect environmental and human health is unacceptable, and Big Food does all of these things as part of routine business. The way you fight back is by changing your own purchasing habits. While there are “food deserts” in inner cities, most people are not forced to buy processed foods for lack of options.
The Role of Endocrine Disruptors
Yet another factor driving disease statistics in the U.S. is the excessive exposure to toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals. According to one recent analysis, if exposure to certain household chemicals — including phthalates, DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and perfluoroalkyl — were to be reduced by 25 percent, it would reduce the rate of obesity and type 2 diabetes by an estimated 13 percent.33,34 According to the authors:
“The present study confirms substantial contribution, especially of mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, to adult type 2 diabetes, and large annual costs of medical care … Our findings also speak the need for a strong regulatory framework that proactively identifies chemical hazards before they are widely used, and the use of safer alternatives …
The European Union is actively considering regulations to limit such exposures, and the USA recently revised the Toxic Substances Control Act, but does not consider endocrine disruption. In the absence of such a framework, newly developed synthetic chemicals may emerge as diabetogenic exposures, replacing banned or substituted hazards as contributors.”
Your purchasing decisions can make a big difference in your exposure to these kinds of chemicals, and subsequently your health. In one study,35 young girls who switched to phthalate-free personal care products lowered their phthalate levels by 27 percent.
Taking personal responsibility and seeking out non-toxic products appears to be the only way to really stay safe, as the chemical industry maintains a stronghold over regulatory agencies in both the U.S. and Europe. The French magazine Le Monde recently published a three-part investigative series in which it accuses the European Commission of ignoring the science on endocrine disruptors. The series has been translated and republished by Environmental Health News.36,37,38
To Optimize Your Weight and Health, Eat Real Food, Avoid Toxins and Stay Active
The statistics discussed in this article reveal a grim reality. People around the world, and Americans in particular, are suffering the effects of a failed food system that places immediate profits over long-term health. There’s really no way around it; if you’re concerned about your weight and health, you need to address the quality of your food and the ratio of carbs, fats and protein you eat.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to figure out which processed foods are “good” for you and which ones aren’t. A far more effective rule is to simply eat real food, as close to its natural state as possible. If you’re still struggling with excess weight after you’ve cleaned up your diet, you may want to reconsider the timing of your meals.
Intermittent fasting can be very effective for helping your body shift from sugar- to fat-burning mode. If you are overweight, I would strongly encourage you to do a number of water fasts, as that will radically jumpstart your body’s ability to burn fat as your primary fuel.
In addition to that, you need to evaluate and address your toxic exposures. Most pesticides can be avoided by eating certified organic foods. If you buy organic produce and grass-fed animal products you’ll also cut your exposure to genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, artificial sweeteners and harmful processed fats.
But that’s not your only route of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Household cleansers, personal care products and anything containing flame retardants (and that includes everything from furniture and clothing to electronics and baby products) are other common sources.
Last, but certainly not least, increase your physical activity level. This includes standing up more during your work day and walking more. Ideally, aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. Later you can add on a more regimented workout routine, which will really help maximize all the other healthy lifestyle changes you’ve implemented. But for general health and longevity, staying active throughout each day and avoiding sitting takes precedence.