You might as well be smoking

I’ve heard mixed responses to the claim that a poor diet is equivalent to a cigarette habit, with people who have a similar point of view to me agreeing and people who have a different one laughing. I cannot impress enough upon you how very real this comparison is. Poor diet has been linked to as many, if not more, chronic diseases and consequent deaths as cigarettes. Living in a privileged, educated bubble as I do, it continues to amaze me that there are still hordes of people out there who don’t understand how important the food we eat is to our long term health. It shouldn’t surprise me though, because it wasn’t so long ago that the public was unaware of tobacco’s threat to health. I think individuals have a very hard time accepting these truths because doing so implies that they are “doing it to themselves.” I would argue, however, that environment plays a very big part in someone’s choice to engage in harmful behaviors. The tobacco industry worked very hard to make smoking convenient and appealing, and that is the same thing the food industry, aided by the government, does today.

There’s good news and bad news here.

The good news is that when it was discovered that smoking was causing hundreds of thousands of deaths through cancer and heart disease, the ensuing public health campaign had a magically simple goal: get people to stop smoking. Of course, it took decades to actually reign in the tobacco industry, ramp up education, and implement other policies that make it nearly impossible and definitely undesirable to smoke in a public place. Still, the way to keep tobacco from harming your health is wonderfully uncomplicated, and public health efforts to curb smoking and smoking-related mortality have been hugely effective.

The bad news is that when public health experts realized that people’s diets were making them sick, the next step was not nearly as intuitive. The goal obviously could not be “get people to stop eating.” It had to be “get people to eat more of the right things and less of the wrong things,” which is infinitely more complex, and it has proved to be nearly impossible for the various stakeholders involved (doctors, researchers, industry, policymakers) to come to a consensus on which foods are definitively good for us and which are definitively bad.

Fortunately, there are some foods that people seem to finally agree have no place in a healthy diet—foods like soft drinks. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks provide absolutely no beneficial nutrients and a huge hit of liquid sugar which promotes weight gain, metabolic disease, and tooth decay. So, like smoking, soda provides a hit of pleasurable stimulation, is quite addicting, and if consumed frequently, promotes the development of chronic disease. Accordingly, there have recently been several proposals in localities around the country proposing policies aimed at reducing sugary drink consumption.

But, because of the complex nature of nutrition, I fear it will take much longer to flip the environment towards supporting a healthy diet than it did to flip it against smoking. Perhaps the first step is to get the public to grasp the potential harms of poor diet, as they’ve accepted the dangers of smoking. Hopefully my blog is pushing us a tiny bit closer toward that goal.


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