Photo by Jonathan Colon -

Saviour in the fight against obesity?

Science journalist David Freedman is a man with a startling idea; that fast food and processed food may actually help in the fight against obesity instead of hindering it. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an idea that has found favour among sections of the medical profession but, writing recently, he said: “A high percentage of the obese are more or less hooked on fatty, sugary, processed foods, and we seem helpless to change that. “ Getting the 100 million obese people in the U.S. to eat less junk food and more unprocessed, “whole” foods, would be helpful to turning the tide on the obesity epidemic—but unprocessed foods are largely too expensive and hard to access for large numbers of poor obese. “ What we can do right now with food technology is create lower-calorie, lower-fat, lower-sugar processed foods that will deliver the same stimulating sensations as the junkier stuff but help the obese make their diet healthier overall. We need to push the fast food and processed food industries to move toward these healthier versions of their foods.”

He argues that one of the big problems is confusing advice, saying: “There are a cacophony of conflicting theories and advice promoted by my fellow science journalists. Cut down on fat but feel free to eat lots of carbs. Cut down on carbs but feel free to eat lots of fat. Calories are everything, or calories don’t matter at all. Exercise is the key rather than diet. Diet is the key rather than exercise. It’s nearly impossible to keep lost weight off. It’s all in the genes. It’s all in your gut bacteria, and on and on. “I’ve travelled the US and the world interviewing highly credentialed obesity experts and observing their weight-loss programmes. There’s little controversy among scientists about what works, and it’s been backed up by hundreds of studies. “ What works is gradually moving people to lower-calorie, less-fatty, less-sugary foods and getting them moving more, along with providing a broad array of behavioral supports so they stick with it forever. The claims pushed by prominent journalists for magic-bullet solutions like switching wholesale to natural foods or to ultra-low-carb diets just cause most obesity experts to smack their heads in frustration, even though the public eats them up.

“Honey and fruit jam right off the farm-stand shelf are sugary calorie nightmares, and pork belly from locally raised, free-range, antibiotic-free pigs is a fatty calorie nightmare. But a McDonald’s egg-white breakfast sandwich, though processed, is a relatively low-calorie, tasty dish that’s a great source of lean protein, and has whole grains, both of which are key, satisfying target foods for people who want to keep weight off. “I realiaed this enormous misconception—the absurd dream of getting farm-fresh meals onto the plates of tens of millions of poor, obese people hooked on junk food—was standing in the way of what might be the one workable solution to attacking obesity: getting the food industry to create healthier versions of its popular foods that those people would actually eat. “ We need lower-fat meat, in particular, beef; reduced-sugar versions of candy, cakes and other sweets; reduced-fat substitutes for oily foods like salad dressing; whole-grain versions of floury foods like white bread. But we need these healthier versions to taste and look exactly like the originals, or most people won’t switch to them.”