Sunday, January 09, 2005

Few choices are more tempting objects of cultural snobbery than choice of diet. (At least one entire country, just west of Germany and Northeast of Spain, has enthusiastically yielded to the temptation.) One might expect egalitarian leftists to be less prone to this particular vice, but Belle Waring (of Crooked Timber) and Mark Kleiman have both fallen prey to it. Waring speculates idly that the problem with the diet of the American poor is that it doesn't resemble Singaporean cuisine:
I was thinking today of how much better off the residents of American inner cities would be if the Singapore model of hawker centres prevailed. Sure, there’s fattening char kway teow, but every hawker centre has a fruit juice and sliced fruit stand with cheap papaya, watermelon, and kiwi fruit, not to mention carrot juice. I understand that crime is a deterrent, but why exactly is it that US inner-city markets have such awful, expensive, fly-blown produce, even the ones in Oakland CA? Is this true in poor neighborhoods in Great Britain?
Mark Kleiman at least avoids Waring's "let them eat papaya" cultural condescension. But he exudes condescension of a different kind: intellectual condescension.
10. The prosperous generally are more health-conscious than the poor, which among other things means they're more likely to know and care about what foods are healthy.

11. Healthy food is relatively more available and cheaper to the prosperous than it is to the poor. This is both and effect and a cause of (10).

12. Lots of unhealthy food actually tastes vile, and encouraging people to eat it reduces their enjoyment of food as well as damaging their health. There's simply no taste comparison beteen a mango and a candy bar.
Kleiman believes the poor eat unhealthily because "[u]nhealthy eating habits are promoted by the food industry, including the fast-food restaurant trade and the convenience-food segment of the grocery trade." In other words, poor people aren't culturally benighted--they're just pliable sheep being brainwashed by commercials to eat expensive, unhealthy, foul-tasting swill.

I would respond to Waring's musings and Kleiman's points with a few points of my own:

  • Poor diet and its consequences are hardly confined to the poor. There are plenty of middle-class and wealthy people who overindulge and get unhealthily fat.

  • Conversely, one doesn't have to eat fashionably to eat healthily. Plain, basic American foods can easily be put together in reasonable quantities to create a balanced, healthy diet.

  • Nobody needs to be brainwashed to eat junk food. The corporations that invest so much money in advertising fast food also spend a fortune fine-tuning its taste to make it universally appealing--to rich and poor alike.

  • The only diet-related health problem that is recognized by a consensus of the public health community to be both widespread and serious is overconsumption of calories. This problem cuts across class lines, and has little to do with either cultural norms or advertising. Rather, people overeat because eating is enjoyable, and anything that is enjoyable will prompt many people to do it more than is healthy.

  • Efforts to encourage people to eat healthily should therefore treat their targets as responsible, intelligent people, and focus straightforwardly on the adverse consequences of an unhealthy diet. Progress can be expected to be slow and difficult, but not impossible--consider the history of anti-smoking campaigns, for instance. Patronizing attempts to recast the problem as one of misled or unsophisticated poor people, on the other hand, will fail to convince the poor, or anyone else.
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