Tofu or Takeout: Why Eating Healthy Is So Hard

eating healthy

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Food writer Bee Wilson discusses the paradox of the modern diet.

A Saturday morning trip to the farmer’s market is as popular now as garage sales were a generation ago; restaurants are touting their farm-to-table offerings, and even the smallest grocery store has a healthy foods aisle. Eating healthy is easier than ever, yet people around the world are consuming more processed and packaged food than at any time in human history, with devastating effects on health.

A new book from food writer Bee Wilson, The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World, examines how food, which should be one of life’s greatest pleasures, has become a source of anxiety, obsession and confusion. Wilson also holds the food industry and policymakers accountable for pushing mixed messages and helping consumers get hooked on cheap, fast, easy foods. The Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM invited Wilson to talk about the paradox of the modern diet. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

 An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How much has the food industry changed in the last decade or so?

Bee Wilson: It has changed hugely over the past five years, 10 years, 50 years. If you think the way our grandparents’ generation would have eaten and drunk, water was the normal drink. People had regular meals. There weren’t many snacks between meals. Now there are so many snacks, it’s almost as if between-meals are taking up more of our day than meals. And some people are obsessing more about the nutritional content of their post-gym protein bar than they are about what they’re having for dinner. Almost everything has changed — how we eat, what we eat.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re right that three square meals have gone by the wayside because we’re now thinking about eating smaller amounts more frequently over the course of the day.

Wilson: Exactly. It’s partly that the way we eat has this intricate relationship with the way we live. We’ve been saying for decades that we’re too busy to cook. But one of the new things now is people saying they’re too busy to eat, which is really bizarre and strange. You look at these new drinks Soylent, where people think they don’t have time to sit and chew and swallow, so they’re going to swallow some kind of beige liquid instead. I’m not knocking it. I interviewed some really intelligent people for the book who said it worked for them.

“We’ve been saying for decades that we’re too busy to cook. But one of the new things now is people saying they’re too busy to eat, which is really bizarre and strange.”

If you look at what’s sold as food that’s affordable, it’s so greasy and unhealthy that they would rather drink one of these liquids and then maybe cook themselves a nice home-cooked dinner in the evening. But to me, that’s a sign of how radically food has failed in its job, which should be both to nourish us and give us pleasure. These days, it seems like it doesn’t do a very good job of either.

Knowledge@Wharton: At the start of the book, you wrote that even grapes have changed over the last several years.

Wilson:  Grapes have changed hugely. I do end by saying grapes are the least of our worries. I’m not saying stop eating grapes, by any means. Grapes are still fruit. Grapes are still far more healthful than 90% of what’s being sold as food. But you look at grapes and think, “Well, they’re very ancient and unchanging. The ancient Romans had grapes. They’ve been in wine production for centuries.” But if you look at what’s sold as grapes, they’re completely different from what grapes were in the past.

We used to have grapes that had seeds in them, whereas now these seedless grape varieties have been around for a long time, but they weren’t normal. I’m not saying we necessarily want grapes to have seeds in them, but the seeds had nutrients. If you get a bunch of white, seedless grapes in the supermarket, it doesn’t have the same vital nutrients that you’re expecting grapes to have. It doesn’t have the health benefits. It’s very sweet, like almost everything that we eat. Almost everything about grapes has changed, almost without us noticing.

Knowledge@Wharton: We have seen the rate of obesity increase here in the United States, but is it an international problem?

Wilson: It’s hugely a global story. That was the biggest surprise to me when I began doing the research. I’d read so many things and had so many conversations about this being a Western problem, and it’s no longer a Western problem. On every continent, there has been this common, radical set of changes from savory foods to sweet ones, from meals to snacks. These changes are happening so rapidly in some countries such as Brazil and Mexico. They’re the kinds of changes that took the U.S. decades to reach that level of obesity and tooth decay and Type 2 diabetes that’s now happening in places like Mexico in under a decade.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you talk about the transition to more packaged and processed foods over the years and how that has made eating healthy a challenge?

Wilson: It has changed hugely. As with everything, it’s a question of ratio. There are processed foods, which might be something like a can of tomatoes. Well, that’s quite a useful kind of processed food. But ultra-processed food would be anything from junk food to sweetened breakfast cereals. Those now make up 50% of what the average person in the U.S. buys as food, which is huge.

Nobody is saying you’re going to die if you occasionally eat a bowl of breakfast cereal, if that gives you pleasure. But when 50% of what people are eating is ultra-processed, something quite deep has changed. There’s a whole series of studies done showing that when people eat ultra-processed foods, we overeat because they’re very easy to over consume. They’re also linked with higher levels of diet-related cancer.

“Nobody is saying you’re going to die if you occasionally eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. But when 50% of what people are eating is ultra-processed, something quite deep has changed.”

Knowledge@Wharton: But we also see a lot of people who are eating more pork. I know how you prepare it plays a role, but pork is seen as a healthier option than some of the things that people eat.

Wilson: Yes, so this is interesting. It’s a deeply economic story, as well. It is, as I see it, simultaneously a really happy story and a sad story. It really is the best and worst of times. The reason these changes happen across the world is because when incomes rise, people move away from farms into cities. Lots of other things change. They buy electric rice cookers if they’re in Asia. They buy microwaves if they’re everywhere else. Meat is another huge part of the story. People buy themselves the foods that their grandparents dreamed of eating, which were luxury foods, feast foods. That eventually means sugar and meat, but also oil.

That was a big surprise to me. I knew that our diets were really high in sugar. Sometimes people say, “What’s wrong with modern diets is that they’re so low in fat and high in sugar,” which is true, except for the “low in fat” part. It turns out that even more than sugar, what we’re consuming is loads of cheap vegetable oils. It’s partly because they go into these ultra-processed foods, but it’s partly because in places like China, people dreamed of vegetable oil as a kind of luxury. In the old days of famine, fat was literally almost like riches. Then suddenly incomes go up, the price of oil goes down, it’s there in every store, and people almost don’t notice that they’re just pouring in five times as much oil as people would have done in the past.

It’s the same with meat. Pork was something that’s always been a luxury food in China. But only now can people afford to buy as much of it as their heart desires.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the U.S., younger generations are moving in greater numbers to cities. How has that changed eating habits and efforts at eating healthy food?

Wilson: I think one of the saddest things about how we eat today is that eating, which is fundamentally for human beings, should be a really social activity. It becomes something quite lonely for so many of us. It’s not that there’s anything wrong in eating a meal by yourself. After all, about a third of households in places like the U.S. and U.K. are single-person households. You can have a delicious meal by yourself. It can be a way of really taking care of yourself at the end of a long working day.

But the sad thing is that so often we are just in this kind of little bubble, ordering in something from Uber Eats, staring at a screen, not really giving our meals this kind of social aspect that you were describing of going to a pub, being with friends. I think that would be a huge loss if we lose out on that. Because food feeds a lot more than just our bodies. It’s also culture, it’s belonging, it’s mental health.

I came across a really interesting study that looked at Japanese-American men in California and their rates of heart disease. Some of them had much higher heart disease than others, but it wasn’t [tied] to what they eat, it was the extent to which they were still eating in social groups in quite a ritualized way, as they had done back in Japan. I thought that was really telling, because our culture is endlessly telling us we’re too busy to eat, we’re too busy to sit down. It’s also telling us food doesn’t matter very much. And none of those things, it turns out, are true.

Knowledge@Wharton: You note there is more information and disinformation about food than ever, which has changed the industry in different ways. Can you talk about that?

Wilson: It’s so confusing, and it’s so polarizing. On the one hand, you have these people saying, “If you eat a single bite of carbohydrate, your insulin levels will go sky high.” On the other hand, you’ve got people advocating really purist vegan diets. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being vegan. I’m just saying there’s a sub-strand of clean eating where people are feeling that if they put anything in their body that’s not “pure,” that there’s something wrong with that.

And that makes me really sad. It feels like our eating is becoming kind of angry, polarized, quite disordered in some ways. There’s a lot of shame and guilt around food, and of course it’s a brilliant marketing device for the food industry. No matter what worry or concern somebody has, it can be packaged and sold back to us at an inflated price, as something “protein-boosted” or “guilt-free dark chocolate snack” or whatever it might be.

It’s really hard. I think the thing that’s most missing in the way eat now is that we don’t seem to trust our own senses anymore to tell us what to eat. It’s as if we don’t actually know what food is anymore.

“Food feeds a lot more than just our bodies. It’s also culture, it’s belonging, it’s mental health.”

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s not just what we eat, it’s how much we eat. We know that there are a number of health threats associated with obesity, but we are also talking about the higher medical costs involved. That’s an even larger story in the U.S. right now because of our fractured health care system.

Wilson: That’s a huge story. Another part of the story, which I think doesn’t get talked about enough, is how do we talk about people with obesity? I have a section in the book on weight stigma, and it’s something we don’t examine anything like enough.

If you’re looking at societies like the U.S., where two-thirds of the adult population is overweight or obese, how is it that we can still be writing such horrible, judgmental newspaper headlines suggesting that people with obesity are lacking in willpower, when the entire food environment has changed. We’re living in a world flooded with sugar, and in some sense not to be overweight or obese is to react against such environments. One of the many things I think is wrong with how we eat is that we blame ourselves and our own bodies too much, and we don’t look outwards at the environment that made us this way.

Knowledge@Wharton: What needs to happen to get people to start eating healthy food? So many issues need to be dealt with, but if we’re able to tackle them one or two at a time, what needs to be approached?

Wilson: It’s overwhelming because it’s huge, it’s everything. As an individual, I have some suggestions at the end. They’re very simple and obvious things, like making time for cooking, especially learning to cook things that you actually want to eat, and reconnecting with your senses.

But a lot of this change, in my view, has to happen at a government level. I’ve taken inspiration from a few places around the world. The government of Chile has enacted the most radical food laws the world has ever seen. They have banned cartoon characters from boxes of frosted, sugary kids’ cereals because they see that as an incitement to sell sugar. When I first heard this, I thought it was amazing. They also have these very clear stop signs on certain foods that are high in sugar or high in saturated fat. I think that’s one way to go.

The other thing I would love to see more of is food education. I’ve been heavily involved in this project in the U.K. called TastEd, where we go into schools, bring in delicious fresh produce, and just get the kids to interact with the food with all of their senses. It’s just amazing. I’ve met 12-year-olds who’ve never eaten a raw tomato in their life, so they don’t know if they like tomatoes or not because they’ve never had the chance to make up their minds.

It’s not going to be the whole answer, but I feel like a combination of better government regulation of the food supply, education — and I feel like consumers slowly maybe are shifting themselves in a healthier direction.

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