We live in a toxic food culture. Most of us have watched millions of commercials claiming sugar cereal is a critical part of a balanced breakfast. We can't drive down a street, or watch television, without being bombarded by ads for poisonous foods. The world's biggest celebrities hawk the soda that is making us fat. And then we see commercials hawking pharmaceutical drugs or surgeries to cure us of the problems these foods create.

This toxic food culture infiltrated our schools. Until recently, school lunches included French Bread Pizza, Tater Tots, chocolate milk, and Rib-b-que on Bun. We were taught a food pyramid weighted heavily towards processed carbs, meat & cheese. Vegetables and fruit played a relatively small part of our nutrition education or our lunches (tater tots and french fries were the vegetables). The educational materials were provided by the same people whose job it was to support agribusiness. They taught us to eat in a way that was good for companies, not people.

Now, a generation later, we are coming to see the impact of this toxic food culture and food miseducation. It’s killing us.

Almost 70% of America is either overweight or obese. Over 25% of our kids are, too. Obesity is now the leading cause of preventable death in America. According to the CDC, “the total health burden of obesity surpassed the total health impact of smoking.” Over the last forty years we’ve seen a spike in rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, all of which are correlated with obesity.

In addition to the medical and financial costs of obesity, there's another cost that’s rarely talked about. Something that only people who are, or have been, overweight really understand. Something that is as real as it is hidden. That cost is shame.

From the heavy kid who is teased on the playground, to the overweight woman at work too ashamed to attend the company pool party, many people spend their lives embarrassed about their bodies, and convinced that it is their fault. They don’t talk about it because they are too ashamed. But just because they don’t talk about it, doesn’t make it any less real, or any less devastating.

So why don’t we stop eating like this?

There are a few reasons. For one, fast/processed/junk food is cheap. Over the last forty years, inflation-adjusted wages have dropped by 40%. It’s simply cheaper to buy the calories you need on a day-to-day basis from fast/processed/junk food companies. The problem is, you get too many calories, and too little nutrition. Our reliance on cheap food has led to an over-caloried, under-nourished, deeply unhappy population.

Another reason we rely on fast/processed food is because it’s, well, fast. Over the past fifty years, the amount of time Americans spend preparing and eating food has dropped from about an hour 50 years ago to less than half-an-hour today[2]. Americans eat 32% of their calories away from home, a number that has roughly doubled over the last three decades[3] Why? For one, Mom is no longer home cooking. In 1960, only 22% of women had jobs. By 2011, over 66% did[4]. Two-income families are now the majority. Meanwhile, Americans work an average of 122 hours more per year than the British and 378 hours more than Germans[5].

A third reason is that it’s the only game in town. Approximately 24 million American’s live in food deserts, geographic areas where access to healthy food is restricted or nonexistent.

A fourth reason is that it’s hidden. Even when we are trying to eat healthy, sometimes we can’t. High Fructose Corn Syrup is in everything, bread, cereal, ketchup, pasta sauce. A vast majority of the products in the supermarket have had something unhealthy added surreptitiously to them.

Eating fast/processed/junk food is cheap, quick, hidden and sometimes the only thing available. Those are pretty compelling reasons to keep eating fast/processed/junk food.

But there’s another reason, one that may be the most powerful force of all. It’s a reason that anyone who has ever gone on a diet—whether they are poor with no spare time, or whether they are rich and living a life of leisure—understands. It’s hard to give up fast/processed/junk food, to eat in moderation, to stay away from sweets.

The food processing companies have spent billions of dollars engineering our environment so that food is always right-at-hand, and engineering food so that it bypasses our bodies natural ability to regulate itself. Not only do they cultivate the most perfect taste – “the bliss point” – but they also build the foods in a way that confuse our bodies. Take Cheetos, for example. They are designed to be crunchy, which tells our bodies they are substantive, nutrient rich. But then they practically dissolve in your mouth, which tells our bodies that we have not received enough nutrients. Quite simply, these foods are designed for us not to be able to stop eating them. In the Groceryships program, we use a mantra to help us remember this:

Cheetos = Cocaine.

Processed foods are designed to make us eat more and more, even when we want to stop. America has been miseducated by the government and food companies, forced into eating junk/fast/processed food because it’s cheaper, faster, and sometimes the only thing available, and over time we’ve become addicted to it. And now we’re dying from it.

This is a big problem. With no easy solution. Intuitively we know that we would be healthier if we ate more vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts & seeds (whole, plant-foods), but we don't. 

[1] Prevalence of gout and hyperuricemia in the US general population: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2007–2008

[2] Out of The Kitchen, Onto The Couch, Michael Pollan, NY Times, July 29, 2009