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Health: Nutrition vs. Corporate Obesity

I recently purchased The Complete Guide to Nutritional Health by Pierre Jean Cousin and Kirsten Hartvig (n.b. - I don't see a listing for this on Amazon, but Vitality Foods for Health & Fitness by the same authors looks very similar).

Reading this book reminded me of the wave of news stories emerging about childhood obesity, for example, Growing Problem of Children's Waists. Similar articles appeared in other places, for example, Childhood Obesity Accelerating, Study Finds and Children Getting Fatter, Claims Survey.

Food is a necessity in life, yet we continue to allow the production and marketing of food that is clearly lacking in nutritional value. And the learning environment surrounding nutrition is one full of twists, turns and contradictions...

The learning environment for nutrition is one that spans many kinds of experience. One way to explore commerce is to look at the ways in which one industry contribute to the creation of another. It's too simplistic to assume the food industry is "the" cause, but it is also obvious to say that they are at least part of the cause.

For example, we might consider the possibility that the food industry has made some contribution to the creation of other industries, for example, medical research into disease, preventative nutrition, the psychology of obesity, a proliferation of dieting schemes, pharmaceuticals for weight control, educational insitutions, lifestyle coaching, wellness clinics, and even fashion design.

You and I are also part of the cause. We allow corporations to produce and market food that has littel or no nutritional value. And we also allow ourselves to eat that food. Of course, we do not want to become so extreme in our eating habits that everything we put into our bodies is part of a detailed strategy, yet at the same time I wonder if we are really paying enough attention to what we eat. Further, our knowledge about the food we eat and its long-term impact on our health is incomplete. However, the question about why we allow questionable practices in food production to continue remains.

Part of the reason may be that here in North America we produce more food than we can possibly eat. Perhaps this overabundance of food makes it an assumption in our thinking. Another part of the reason may be that we have so accelerated our lives that the speed of life doesn't permit enough us enough time for reflection about something as "simple" as eating. It may also be that our cultural definitions of words such as enjoyment, convenience and even "eating" guide our attention away from nutrition. Marketing strategies may also create an invisible web of influence that replace knowledge of food as nutrition with food as social interaction.

The reasons why food is not first and foremost seen as nutrition are complex, but it seems equally clear that food has become more influenced by corporate marketing strategies than the promotion of good health. It seems odd that in a society that often reveres technology as a means to promote ideals such as knowledge, communities and social networks that we still struggle to effectively integrate the systemic promotion of good health.

I also wonder when food producers will assume a meaningful degree of responsibility and accountablity for the nutritional value of the products they produce. In the marketplace, we have an antiquated and virulent notion called let the buyer beware. Consumers of course need to make intelligent and informed decisions about what they buy, but producers also need to make intelligent and informed decisions about what they produce especially when it concerns our health. The basis for any decision about food production and consumption is its nutritional value, not its entertainment value or marketing appeal.

The news stories about childhood obesity, unfortunately, miss the point. We don't need researchers to tell us that filling ourselves with sugar, salt, additives, substitutes, etc., will result in obesity and disease. Nor will academic research help to fundamentally alter the basic problem of childhood (and adult) obesity - and that is corporate opportunism. Our culture permits fast food corporations (they are coming under increasing pressure to improve) to provide food that has little to no nutritional value. This also provides opportunities for psychologists to address negative self-image caused by obesity, for dieticians to develop and market programs to counter the effects of poorly designed food, for pharmaceutical companies to market a weight-loss solution in a pill, for surgeons to do more and more heart surgeries (not that they want to), and for academic researchers to dig deeper and deeper into what is happening without being able to change it. The mental and physical landscape of our lives is quite literally immersed in a wide range of competing views.

The real problem of childhood obesity is not obese children - this is a symptom - it is the lack of responsbility in the food sector combined with our willingness to allow our children to eat food that has no value, and in some cases, harmful. Yesterday, while grocery shopping, I watched as a mother allowed her two kids to pick up some kind of Disney-fied box of wraps and place them in a cart full of processed food. None of this is my business, yet it lead me to wonder:

  • Is this really a "treat" for the kids or are they simply victims of marketing?
  • Is this kind of "food" a reward, or a punishment?
  • Is food anything we put into our mouths, chew and swallow, or is it something more?
  • How is it that food is more attuned to commercialism that nutrition?

The high-school cafeteria is a clear example of how education and learning are different. My high-school cafeteria was a virtual grease factory - and I ate there all the time. French fries, pop and anything with gravy (wasn't really sure what was underneath it) all the while pursuing an education in language, science, biology, math, music, and the like. I never once received an education in basic nutrition, healthy eating, vitamins and minerals, preventative health care - but the silent language of the cafeteria remained a daily companion. While I was never formally educated in nutrition, I learned a lot about eating in the cafeteria. This is an example of what some might call the "hidden curriculum" or "informal learning." Unfortunately, I learned a lot of bad habits.

  • Why is it that in some education systems there are now courses for health and nutrition, yet the educational environment itself is littered with fast food chains, pop dispensers, and cafeterias that produce food that looks mysterious?
  • Is this not an obvious contradiction, or do we simply promote health in the context of a classroom and not worry about what happens outside of it?
  • Has education become so remote from reality that we no longer have any meaningful connection between what goes on inside the classroom and what goes on the the rest of the world?

Walk into a bookstore and there are literally thousands of books on healthy eating. Watch television and there a numerous programs about healthy eating. Even Dr. Phil is marketing his own program. Is the "problem" the increasing size of our waists, or is it that we simply can't find ways of doing what we know we should do?

One of the articles on childhood obesity made mention of the response from the clothing industry, "Clothing manufacturers adjust by offering baggier styles and elasticized waists." This is opportunism at its worst. Maybe these clothing manufacturers could design some clothing that would shrink and retract for those people in the world who are fading away due to starvation.

In a society that produces more food that it can consume, it seems that good nutrition has suffered. With all our knowledge and technology, are we as healthy as we should be? There is no perfect diet, but there are some very common sense and simple things that can better connect what we are eating to better nutritional health.

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Hi Pearl,

Thanks for the reference re e-Learning - I'll definitely check it out. All is fine here, but I have been extremely busy at work lately. The writing I have done has been offline, but I'll soon get back to the weblog. Rick and I have also done some re-thinking about what we want to do with Inside Learning so that has been time well spent.

It's a little ironic, but I was involved in a car accident a little while ago - thankfully not my fault and no one was seriously hurt. Being my first accident, I quickly learned first-hand how terrifying a highway can be. I'm fine now and my car is back together. I think there must be some relationship here between this accident and that crazy traffic rant I wrote a while ago;-)

The most interesting thing about the experience was the tow-truck driver that not only took care of my car, but me as well. He even called me the day after to see if I was ok. We shared a number of stories while taking the car to the collision centre that have a permanent place in my memory. There might be something quite interesting to write about here -perhaps the next entry.

I've also been watching the responses to the issue of the 50% high school drop out rate - well, there isn't much to watch. Seems like New York is also having the same problem according to CNN. What's interesting is that there is much talk about how to support the schools, but no one has yet mentioned how the students that have already dropped out might be helped. Odd.

Keep in touch.

With your interest in E-learning thought this may be of interest as a data point,§ion=0&article=40443&d=2&m=3&y=2004&pix=kingdom.jpg&category=Kingdom

All OK there Brian?

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