Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is cooking the silver bullet to the obesity epidemic?

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Many writers (e.g. Mark Bittman), journalists, researchers, scientists, and celebrity chefs (e.g Jamie Oliver), believe that if people cooked more, obesity wouldn't be such a big issue. While I agree with this observation generally and feel that it could probably be good for the environment too, I don't think it is something that on its own could ever be effective in our capitalist society.

First, how can cooking our own meals help the obesity epidemic? Meals and snacks eaten outside of the home generally have more calories than those made in the home. Simplistically, if you consume more calories than you expend on a regular basis, you're going to gain weight. There is also some evidence that eating more frequently outside of the home is related to an increased body weight. Preparing your own meals also cuts down on packaging, particularly if you eat a lot of fast food, which is better for the environment. And preparing your own meals means just that - as Yoni Freedhoff recently commented, nuking something doesn't count.

Cooking is a skill. It requires time. I've frequently heard that cooking skills have been on the decline (although I can't give a you specific source for that). I'd guess, because they're not necessary anymore (abundance of prepared, tasty food), and perhaps due in part (please feminists don't hate me) to the emergence of the two-working-parent family; the housewife social norm is disappearing. People, therefore, need to be taught how to cook; and to cook food that tastes at least as good as what could be bought pre-made. Where and how would this happen? Sure,we can get at kids in schools, but what about their parents? Adults are a less captive audience. Second, people don't feel like they have time.  They're stressed. Everyone is. But, this is particularly tough for people on lower incomes, trying to make ends meet. They know the value of healthy eating but lack time and resources. Thus, sometimes being able to get prepared foods for relatively cheap is valued much more highly than cooking skills and being able to cook one's own meals. Some people can't even afford places to live that have enough room for cooking equipment anyway. Given the current state of global economic affairs, I imagine, that these scenarios will only become more frequent.  

If we want to people to cook more, it's not simply a matter of setting up social marketing campaigns and saying "hey you guys, you should cook more." There needs to be education programs in schools, the workplace, and the community, as well as changes in policies to support those trying to get by (minimum living supplement, housing and energy subsidies, etc.), workplace policies that are family friendly, egalitarian, and aim to reduce stress, etc. To his credit, I believe Bittman does allude to these nuances in his new book. So these are the first prerequisites (or 'upstream' factors) for being able to cook more in our society.

Second, social norms need to change. Bittman and others have also suggested this - that valuing cooking and eating needs to become the societal norm. In North America, I'd say we value eating. We can get incredibly good tasting food pretty much anywhere, but we eat it 'on the run'. What we don't value anymore is appreciating the food, and the social aspects of eating - that social interaction when cooking and eating with family/friends.  Changing this norm runs hand in hand with the incredible convenience of our society; being exposed to such an abundance of food that's ready made for us. I find it mind boggling the amount of 'stuff', not even just food, that is available for consumption. Take Walmart for example. Everything is convenient and available to us at very little cost. I'm not even sure that we knowingly value the convenience of having someone else prepare our meals - it's just something that we take for granted - it just is. Cooking is an effort and if we don't feel like doing it, we know we can get prepared food easily elsewhere. I didn't feel like cooking the other day, so opted to get sushi take-out instead. That took all of 5 min. And I do it more than I care to admit...

I doubt that in a capitalist society like ours, decreasing the number of products out there for consumption is a viable option. I don't think that taking away convenience would work either (aside from some sort of environmental or man-made catastrophe). So, if both stay, there is really no incentive to cook. Sure, some efforts may have some sort of impact. But the reality is that we have pre-made food all around us, all the time. Plus, we'd need to have the prerequisites in place that I talked about above. This may be difficult given that many in society do not value collectivism, and oppose government intervention (read: the 'nanny' state). What could work in the mean time?  

I don't mean to say here that people should not cook - because I'm not saying that. We need to cook more, absolutely, but I'm skeptical about it having an impact on the obesity epidemic. Prepared food needs to change (e.g. fast food meals, pre-made meals in grocery stores). It needs to become healthier, with smaller portion sizes. Meals need to have more veggies and legumes; there needs to be more options with less meat. Prepared food needs to have taste that rivals its unhealthy competitors (with less salt); and it needs to preserve the convenience factor to be competitive. Packaging should also be biodegradable and we should use less of it. We should also strive to produce food locally, mostly to support local farmers, but also for other reasons that might be debated (read: environmental). Marketing of these healthier foods needs to be creative to maximize dollars spent, as for example, McDonald's marketing budget exceeds many countries' GDP.

I'm drawn to Portland, Oregon as an example of what could happen elsewhere in North America, to rival the dominant fast food chains and pre-made meals sold in grocery stores. Portland is considered a world-class city for street food. City policies allow local vendors to set up shop on semi permanent pods in private parking lots. Food is cheap, and there are over 700 food carts; therefore, lots of variety to chose from. Street food vendors are popular with the workers at lunchtime, tourists, and the after bar crowd. Food carts also promote sustainability and walkability, but in many cities, zoning and public health policies limit their proliferation. Vancouver is moving slowly to allow more street vendors to operate within its borders. In Ottawa, it's non-existent, save for examples like the Stone Soup Foodworks Truck, a mobile food vendor selling soups, sandwiches, salads, and tacos made from local, organic producers. Throughout most of the school year this truck can be found on the campus of the University of Ottawa, but it also frequents events throughout the city. There has been an attempt by the broader community in Ottawa to try and start a street food movement - but it doesn't look to have gained enough steam at this point to provide much sway to city officials.

Street food in Portland, Oregon (CC image)
Best case scenario is that wide sweeping social reform would make us less worried about income, and transform our time-use, allowing for more time to cook real food. We'd be able to acquire cooking skills throughout the life course, and social norms would change; knowledge of and respect for where our food comes from, cooking and eating, and the social interaction when cooking and eating would become highly valued in our society (particularly North American society). Because I envision that this will be difficult, I think that in the mean time, the content of prepared food needs to fundamentally change and that street vendors could be a more sustainable way to combat traditional fast food.

What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear them.
Lachat, C., Nago, E., Verstraeten, R., Roberfroid, D., Van Camp, J., & Kolsteren, P. (2012). Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence Obesity Reviews, 13 (4), 329-346 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00953.x

Bezerra, I., Curioni, C., & Sichieri, R. (2012). Association between eating out of home and body weight Nutrition Reviews, 70 (2), 65-79 DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00459.x

Troy LM, Miller EA, & Olson S (2011). Hunger and Obesity: Understanding a Food Insecurity Paradigm: Workshop Summary Institute of Medicine