When it comes to food and its effect on health, what do people know and how do they know it? Surely everyone knows that fried, fatty foods and drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup can lead to diabetes, heart disease and weight gain, which in turn can depress physical activity, which in turn can lead to other debilitating conditions.
Or do they? The rate at which Americans — and especially Mainers — are joining the ranks of the obese suggests that a vigorous public service campaign is needed.
Indulging regularly in food that diminishes health will certainly remain a choice, the rants of libertarians notwithstanding, but that choice should be an informed one. But those who would be messengers in this public service campaign do so at some risk.
Consider the case of Dr. Jason Newsom, who worked at the Bay County Health Department in Panama City, Fla., an area residents describe as the Redneck Riviera. Dr. Newsom, who ran the county health department under the auspices of the state’s health department, used an electronic sign outside his office to post some direct messages about the direct links between bad nutrition and bad health. Among the messages were: Sweet Tea = Liquid Sugar, Hamburger = Spare Tire, and French Fries = Thunder Thighs.
But Dr. Newsom may have gone too far when he took on doughnuts, a staple of Southern office, church and social culture. Invoking the Dunkin’ Donuts marketing slogan, “America Runs on Dunkin’,” he used the sign to assert that “America Dies on Dunkin’.”
Beyond the admittedly hyperbolic nature of the claim, Dr. Newsom cranked up the controversy quotient by denigrating a specific chain that was opening a new franchise in the area. The “death by doughnuts” claim got Dr. Newsom fired.
What does this say about our relationship with food? We Americans are content to be lectured about how illegal drugs can kill us or ruin our lives (“Just say no!”), we accept scolding about our alcohol intake (“Drink responsibly”), agree solemnly with physicians who inform us that tobacco kills more each year than car crashes and even allow educators and other professionals to give us guidelines on how we enjoy sexual relations (“Practice safe sex”).
But spoil someone’s enjoyment of that morning dose of fried dough and sugar? You’re treading on some dangerous ground, pal.
The relationship between Americans and food is far removed from sustenance and the primary sources of vegetable, fruit, nut, grain and animal. Instead, our consumption has as much to do with comfort, ritual and self-gratification. Persuading people to eat as if their lives depend on it may be a greater struggle than getting them to quit smoking cigarettes or use condoms.