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Is There Such a Thing as Food Choice?

New data on vegetable consumption raises a question we too easily overlook.
(Photo: Igor Bukhlin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Igor Bukhlin/Shutterstock)

New data from the United States Department of Agriculture confirms an old story: Americans—87 percent of us this time—aren’t eating enough vegetables. Not only that, we’re failing to consume a healthy array of them as well. Two of the top three vegetables we eat—tomatoes and lettuce—are largely consumed as by-catch in our pizzas and hamburgers. The third— potatoes—most often comes to us in the form of a French fry, of which we scarf down 29 pounds a year, dousing the heap with more tomatoes liquefied and sweetened into ketchup. Not good.

Critics who have pondered our dietary rut sometimes cite supply problems as a possible culprit, suggesting that we’re not eating enough leafy greens, broccoli, and other vibrant legumes and vegetables because the U.S. does not grow enough of these nobler options. (This is an especially common response to the problems of food deserts.) NPR’s the Salt asks, “Do our lopsided habits mean that Americans are merely eating what's on offer [tomatoes, lettuce, and ketchup], a kind of supply-side theory of diet?”

It’s certainly possible that the diminished domestic supply of healthier vegetables influences our national preference for vegetables best known as hamburger and taco accompaniments (although I wrack my brain to recall the last time I’ve been in a market that did not have a vibrant display of carrots, broccoli, beans, and peppers). But focusing on supply alone risks ignoring a more elemental driver of dietary choice, one that makes it extremely difficult for most humans to choose the healthier option at the end of the day: density of production.

Processed food—calorically dense and ephemerally delicious creations larded with refined starch, sugar, fat, and salt—follows the same arc of innovation that gave us nuclear energy, the internal combustion engine, and the microchip.

Humans have a primal craving for density in all forms. And for good reason: It brings terrific comfort to our lives. In his 2014 book Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper, journalist and Manhattan Institute Fellow Robert Bryce argues that, in response to ongoing fears of “scarcity and shortage,” humans have consistently innovated by achieving greater densities of production. This trend is evident in energy, agriculture, airplane engines, computer technology, and, perhaps most of all, food.

In this respect, processed food—calorically dense and ephemerally delicious creations larded with refined starch, sugar, fat, and salt—follows the same arc of innovation that gave us nuclear energy, the internal combustion engine, and the microchip. The thing with food, though, is that we eat it. Thus density-driven progress leads not only to greater comfort, but to verifiable health problems as well. The fallout from other forms of density-driven innovation are (barring actual fallout) either delayed or externalized. But this is not the case with food.

This critical distinction is nicely captured in Daniel E. Lieberman’s excellent Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Lieberman tells us about his grandfather, who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe as a child in the early 1900s, came to America, and became a pediatrician. Lieberman writes how his grandfather, who grew up poor, greatly appreciated the amenities of industrial society: “Perhaps because he was born a peasant, my grandfather especially enjoyed having a swank bathroom, a big car, air-conditioning, and central heating.” At the same time, Lieberman writes, he would have been appalled at how “Americans and others are failing shamefully at preventing childhood obesity.” The same modernity that brought tremendous comfort and ease to life also undermined it as its very foundation—the human body that enjoyed all those amenities.

Lieberman’s grandfather was noticing something that’s easily hidden in plain sight in contemporary discussions of food choice. Consumer culture, with its indiscriminate onslaught of density-driven luxuries, eliminates choice while appearing to offer it. When that onslaught seduces us with flush toilets, easy and safe transportation, and climate control, the body swoons under the influence of such conveniences. When that same onslaught provides superficially tasty food marked by unhealthy caloric density, the body also swoons, perhaps more than ever, but quickly finds itself trapped in the grips of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It really is a little unfair. You could say we’ve been duped by density.

From this perspective, choosing the carrots over the pizza has little to do with their relative supplies. Why? Our addiction to density—which served us well as hunter-gatherers—has made choosing the carrots over the pizza about as logical as choosing the outhouse over the flush toilet, the horse over the car, the typewriter over the MacBook. In other words: a no brainer. As a result, eating for too many Americans (and others living in privileged consumer cultures) means gravitating to (rather than choosing) calorically dense processed foods, experiencing ersatz satiety, and getting very sick in the process.

Critics of the American diet—and I’m thinking here of Michael Moss’ insightful Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us—are right to highlight the role of food producers in shamelessly capitalizing on our addiction to unhealthy fare. But it’s the underlying cause of that addiction that policymakers must attend to. The convergence of hunter-gatherer and early agricultural bodies with the sedentary ways of density-defined consumer culture is the essence of our challenge. The issue right now is less about confronting food options and making the right choices than it is about fostering awareness about the inner paradox of consumer culture and the human body that we bring to it. Eating a healthy diet today is about as difficult as learning to write with the opposite hand. We must do what seems deeply unnatural. Somehow, we have to be taught how to do that.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.