We Have Abundant Food. Why Is Our Health — and the Planet’s — So Bad?

We Have Abundant Food. Why Is Our Health — and the Planet’s — So Bad?

How can we cure ourselves and heal the planet? Wilson tries drinking a Soylent-like powdered meal-replacement at lunch for a week; it effectively tamps down her hunger, but the lack of variety is dispiriting. She memorably calls such products “pet food for humans.” Her own adventures with food (she was an overweight, ashamed child, caught up in the butter and fat phobias that now seem disastrous precursors to unleashed carbohydrate consumption) and with feeding her three children, who appear fleetingly, make real the dietary quandaries she usually presents via statistics. Unlike, say, Michael Moss in “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” Wilson finds few characters to pull us through the narrative. One exception is her account of her family’s surprisingly enthusiastic flirtation with meal kits, which make Wilson’s teenage daughter “feel like a TV chef.” But this experiment soon gets Wilson where she needs to be: concluding that the packages of ingredients that arrived “like a thoughtful gift” on their Cambridge doorstep are a luxury, unaffordable to most of the world.

Wilson’s concluding chapters are concerned with repairing our broken connection to food. Public policies are the best and fastest routes, she believes, echoing the advanced thinkers in the nutrition community who agree that in an environment of relentless advertisements urging us to eat more, calling diets strictly a matter of personal responsibility is misguided to the point of cruelty. Like many of us who care about food policy and public health, Wilson is slack-jawed at the boldness of Chile’s mandatory food labeling, which dares imply right on the label that some foods are bad for you.

She doesn’t draw attention to what I find the most significant aspect of Chile’s startlingly strong rules against marketing to children and its requirements to reduce sugar and salt: the four-year pause between passage of its new food laws and when those laws went into effect, which gave the food industry clear advance warning of their nutritional targets. Food companies had time to change their products, and change they did. Wilson notes that 65 percent of Coca-Cola’s sales in Chile are now of low- and reduced-sugar drinks.

Industry likes a level playing field, and clear, comprehensive government policies are the way to get it — not the patchwork efforts of cities and municipalities in the United States struggling to enact soda taxes, which lower consumption of sugary drinks and are thus the greatest current threat to the beverage industry. Set against the relentless free-spending of the soda industry to fight those taxes, the Chilean example demonstrates just how nimble industry can be when market circumstances change, and when they are changed equitably.

Wilson shows that countries like Chile and cities like Amsterdam, which builds exercise into its urban design and takes a citywide multigenerational approach to eating better and eating together, are pointing the way toward the kind of change we need. She also shows that such policies aren’t necessarily new: 18th-century France, in a kind of broken-windows approach to enforcing good food, had a policy of policing bread, since bad bread was a sign of social breakdown. (It’s a policy that France could usefully revive.)

As for individual change, Wilson tacks on an epilogue of suggestions that feels like an imperative from her publisher’s marketing department: Buy colorful old plates because they’ll be smaller and you’ll eat less; “don’t drink anything ‘like water’ unless it is water”; “devote less attention to snacks and more to meals”; “learn to cook the foods that you want yourself to eat.” Broad social change is what we, as individuals and as a society, need to work toward. This comprehensive book shows us where to start.

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