Can The Atlantic and David H. Freedman really be serious when they publish a story under the headline "How junk food can end obesity"?
Of course not. The headline is a friendly little deception to get our attention. The problem for us is to tease out the story they are actually telling, because they have signaled that they are not going to be straight with us.
Freedman, as you might recall, was the author of a piece in the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review that bemoaned the state of medical reporting. "Personal-health journalists have fallen into a trap," producing stories that "grossly mislead the public, often in ways that can lead to poor health decisions with catastrophic consequences," he wrote. At the time, I wrote that his criticism of other journalists was "breathtaking in its expanse and its failure to admit exceptions." Even scientists did not escape Freedman's sweeping assault. Published medical findings are "more often wrong than right," and "because the media tend to pick the most exciting findings from journals to pass on to the public, they are in essence picking the worst of the worst. Health journalism, then, is largely based on a principle of survival of the wrongest."
Freedman made clear that we were lucky to find him–the one journalist who has not fallen into the trap. This is common in stories that question the conventional wisdom. To justify discarding what everyone else thinks, the author exaggerates or misrepresents the majority view while explaining that he or she is the only one who has been dogged enough to find the truth. I call this the Ishmael syndrome. As Moby Dick's narrator says in the epilogue, "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
In his 10,000-word story in the current issue of The Atlantic, Freedman begins with an anecdote about discovering that a McDonald's fruit smoothie has fewer calories, is tastier, and is less expensive than some health-food shakes Freedman purchased. This single example is supposed to show that claims about the superiority of unprocessed foods are without merit.
Here is the conventional wisdom that he is tossing overboard: "An enormous amount of media space has been dedicated to promoting the notion that all processed food, and only processed food, is making us sickly and overweight."
The key words here are "all" and "only." He paints his foes as absolutists. A single example of a healthy processed food–or an unhealthy unprocessed food–logically undermines their claims. A more reasonable claim–that a lot of processed food is unhealthy–would be harder for Freedman to refute. He would need more than a McDonald's shake to do it. This might be a good tactic for a debate, but it's not a good way to illuminate and inform readers about a complex topic.
Next, Freedman demonizes his foes by putting foul language in their mouths, to make them seem awful:
In this narrative, the food-industrial complex—particularly the fast-food industry—has turned all the powers of food-processing science loose on engineering its offerings to addict us to fat, sugar, and salt, causing or at least heavily contributing to the obesity crisis. The wares of these pimps and pushers, we are told, are to be universally shunned.
Those are Freeman's words. Have the people he criticizes called food makers pimps and pushers? Or did Freedman make it up? Nobody is quoted, so we don't know. I don't know how the food writer Michael Pollan describes the processed food industry, but Freedman paraphrases Pollan's disdain of "Big Food's engineered edible evil." Once again, those are Freedman's words. By using them, he makes Pollan seem like an unpleasant person. That's irrelevant to an argument about the pros and cons of junk food, but for those keeping score of the debate, it might attract some readers to Freedman's side.
Freedman takes great pleasure in revealing that many of the things you can buy at Whole Foods and Trader's Joes are very high in calories and fat. You see? Natural foods can be unhealthy.
Freedman continues with examples of how restaurants and food writers extolling the benefits of wholesome, unprocessed (or less processed) foods. "You hear much the same from many scientists, physicians, food activists, nutritionists, celebrity chefs, and pundits," he writes. Thankfully, Freedman is here to tell us that all of these people from a variety of fields are wrong: The Ishmael syndrome. He has escaped alone to tell us.
But there is an alternative interpretation: Maybe all of those scientists, physicians, food activists, and others extol unprocessed foods because many of them are low in fat and good for us. Much of what happens when food is processed–fish fillets are turned into fish sticks, or orange juice into orange drink–involves adding salt, sugar, or fat. Saying that unprocessed foods can also contain a lot of calories does not refute that.
And here we come to another hallmark of dubious science reporting: the "gotcha" moment. Freedman nabs the New York Times food write Mark Bittman:
I happened to catch Bittman on the Today show last year demonstrating for millions of viewers four ways to prepare corn in summertime, including a lovely dish of corn sautéed in bacon fat and topped with bacon. Anyone who thinks that such a thing is much healthier than a Whopper just hasn’t been paying attention to obesity science for the past few decades.
Who on earth thinks that corn sautéed in bacon fat and topped with bacon is healthy? Does Bittman? Do the food industry critics? Does McDonald's? No. Nobody does.
Even so, Freedman decides we need a lecture on why people are obese and how they can become leaner. Astonishingly, he begins to sound as though he is advocating unprocessed foods:
Because they are energy-intense foods, fat and sugar and other problem carbs trip the pleasure and reward meters placed in our brains by evolution over the millions of years during which starvation was an ever-present threat…People who want to lose weight and keep it off are almost always advised by those who run successful long-term weight-loss programs to transition to a diet high in lean protein, complex carbs such as whole grains and legumes, and the sort of fiber vegetables are loaded with.
Lean proteins, complex carbs, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables are found in unprocessed foods, and Freedman is advocating them to fight obesity. He writes that there is no evidence "to back up any health-risk claims about processed food," but if processed food contains a lot of sugar and fat–as much of it does–there are mountains of evidence that it's bad for you. If Freedman wants to denounce the calories in Whole Foods products, fairness would dictate that he praise the healthful qualities of unprocessed fruits and vegetables.
One way Freedman works his magic is to confuse "unprocessed foods" with "wholesome foods." Most of his examples of unprocessed foods are things he says are "tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority," and "there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population." Grass-fed beef might be too expensive and too difficult to produce for the masses. But what about soybeans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables? They are commodities, they are cheap, and they are plentiful.
If the debate is between wheat grass energy shakes and McDonald's smoothies–which is how Freedman set it up–he wins. But if we compare the nutritional value of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables to that of a Happy Meal, the win goes to all of the scientists, physicians, and activists that Freedman dismisses.
Freedman is right about one thing: Fast-food producers and industrial food makers "could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50," if they cut a lot of the fat and sugar out of their products. Volume is the issue here.
In 1990, McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's announced they would no longer fry potatoes in beef tallow, but instead switch to healthier vegetable oil. Why did that happen? In part because of pressure from the unprocessed-food crowd that Freedman so roundly dismisses.
At the going rates for stories in national magazines, Freedman probably was paid around $30,000 for his 10,000-word story. Did that hefty paycheck give him the means to demonstrate how junk food can end obesity? Hardly. He savaged Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Pollan, Bittman, and anyone who ever had anything good to say about kale (a low-calorie, high-fiber food, by the way). He suggested that junk food could be made healthier, which we already knew. He suggested that some expensive, sought-after foods could be bad for you. But he did not even attempt to show how junk food could end obesity. And we shouldn't have expected it–we knew the headline was a pleasant little deception.
In the end, Freedman persuades us that a diet rich in high-fat, high calorie foods can make us obese. He shows us that some unprocessed foods can be high in fat and calories, and some processed foods can be low in fat and calories. It's not a terribly surprising vision, but it's Freedman's. Call him Ishmael.