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What is a Toxic Food Environment

26 January 2022

If you live in the United States, you are probably in a toxic food environment, which is defined as a space within which poor eating decisions, such as overeating or eating unhealthy food, are encouraged or facilitated. Food may be readily available, technically safe to eat and easily affordable, but choosing healthy food is much more difficult than choosing poor-quality food. The entirety, or at least the vast majority, of the United States is a toxic food environment.

The term ‘toxic food environment’ was coined by author Dr. Kelly Brownell, whose book “Food Fight: The Inside Story of America's Obesity Crisis - and What We Can Do About It,” explores the roots of America’s obesity epidemic. He writes that the United States is a “culture that feeds its pets better than its children, that targets the poor and children as a market for high-calorie, low-nutrition junk food and manipulates children into poor eating habits with toy giveaways and in-school promotions.”

Our food environment is something we may not always notice – it surrounds us, silently and constantly influencing the choices we make, even if we think of ourselves as independent thinkers. Because it’s everywhere. The sheer number of fast-food restaurants is perhaps the most obvious marker of our toxic food environment but that’s just the beginning.

The totality of a food environment also includes federal issues like agricultural policies, and hyper-local issues like ease of permitting for farmers’ markets. Experts say food engineering and marketing combined with the constant availability of food plus condition-driven behaviors are the drivers behind overeating and obesity.  

How much of an epidemic is obesity? First, let’s define the term. A person who is obese has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. A person who is overweight has a BMI between 25 and 29. In 2020, 16 states had obesity rates at or above 35 percent. In 2019, there were 12 states hitting that mark. Oklahoma made both lists, and has a combined obesity and overweight rate of more than 67 percent. Today, 17.3 percent of Oklahoma high schoolers are obese or overweight, and a staggering 36.5 percent of adults are obese. Oklahoma, as of 2020, is ninth in the nation in adult obesity.

The pandemic isn’t helping. USNews reports that since the pandemic began, 42 percent of adults in the United States reported gaining an undesired amount of weight. We gained an average of 29 pounds, according to a Harris Poll conducted in February 2021. 

Obesity is dangerous, and is associated with poorer mental health, reduced quality of life and a multitude of chronic illnesses and conditions like stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and breathing problems, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Fast food is an especially wily foe for those trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle because it’s everywhere and it’s carefully engineered to make you want it. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss explores fast food companies’ extraordinary tactics used to keep us craving what they serve in his book, “Hooked.” 

Says he: “One of the hallmarks of addiction that scientists who are studying drug addiction discovered back in the 1990s was that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are as a result to act compulsively, impulsively. So they sort of speak about tobacco and alcohol and drug products in terms of the speed that they hit the brain. But it turns out that there's nothing faster than food in ... its ability to sort of hit the brain. ... For me, this puts kind of the notion of "fast food" in an entirely new light. In fact, I like to call what we're talking about here "fast groceries" — that 90% of the middle part of the grocery store. We refine these things, because everything about the processed food industry is about speed, from the manufacturing to the packaging — making it easy for us to open up those packages and get at the food — to the actual speed of their products exciting our brains.

If there are an average of 2-5 fast food restaurants per mile for most of us (there are), and if we’re enduring thousands of junk food advertising messages per year (we are), and food companies and engineers are doing their darndest to make low-quality food addictive (they are), how can we as individuals take charge of our own personal food environments and detoxify them?

Here are some tactics:

Make your home a healthy food environment. If you don’t buy junk food in the first place, it’s much less convenient to eat it. Your home can be a no-junk zone. 

Choose whole, natural foods as much as possible. Stick to foods that are as close to their original form as possible: a baked potato instead of fries; a chicken breast instead of nuggets; an apple instead of apple pie and so on. Be a label reader, too. Something as seemingly simple as a loaf of bread can have 50 ingredients in it, 45 of which you probably want to avoid.  

Shun the sugary and highly processed. We’re talking sodas, candy bars, chips, cookies, crackers and fruit juices. With highly cravable, potentially addictive sugary foods, sometimes the best plan of action is a zero-tolerance policy. Not many of us have the wherewithal to buy a cache of cookies and chips and then occasionally eat sensible portions as a treat. So don’t even go there.

Cook at home and plan ahead. You don’t have to be a chef to make tasty, healthy, filling foods for yourself and your family right in your own kitchen. Once you get in the habit of cooking, you may find it’s a fun creative outlet and you’ll certainly save yourself some time and money. If you make a batch of healthy turkey chili, for example, double it and freeze half. Then you’ll have your own stash of ‘fast food.’   

Arm yourself with healthy tactics when you do eat out. Ask to substitute vegetables for starchy sides. Don’t eat the bread. Ask for salad dressing on the side. Box up half your meal before you even begin – restaurant portions are huge. 

Focus on sweet fruit when you get a craving. A handful of fresh or frozen strawberries atop a scoop of Greek-style yogurt with a drizzle of honey is a seriously delicious, much better choice than strawberry ice cream. 


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