As a pediatric endocrinologist, I am on the frontline of the childhood obesity epidemic. In fact, I am now seeing 100-pound two year olds and 150-pound three-year-old kids in my clinic and I am concerned. The obesity epidemic is perpetuated by a processed food-culture that lacks healthier local whole foods.
Diets dominated by processed foods (refined carbohydrates with high fat- and/or high-sugar content and artificial ingredients) over whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) spur more obesity and diabetes, and have even been shown to negatively change gene expression of the offspring during pregnancy. All-processed ingredients reflect the balance of desirable factors in the modern way of life such as shelf life (long), taste (sweet), texture (fat) convenience (high), and price (low) — all profitable, all less nutritious, and all with a mass-marketed, generic, “cultureless” appeal that reduces emphasis on local cultures and flavors.
The recent rise of social networking is testament to the fact that people are hungry to connect and yearn to be culturally inspired. Culture (art, food, music) deeply connects people and transcends time, politics, and poverty because it is the language of being human — and something that never changes. Medical research as well as the positive embracing of First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign demonstrates an open mind to the idea of a healthier culture and readiness for change. In fact, many of the families that I meet in my clinic are interested in considering whole-food choices, but lack knowledge and guidance.
Food-culture change offers the best hope for transforming obesity and what Americans eat. Oprah’s recent vegan-whole-food-challenge show on February 1st is a step in the right direction and will help to propel the emerging whole-foods movement. Columbus, Ohio is emerging as a center for local whole-foods activism and food-culture change. Just in 2010, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission released the Central Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan — the first plan of its kind in the nation — and received an $885 million US. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to create an urban foodscape in one of Columbus’ most blighted neighborhoods.
Recently, Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman called for 500 community gardens to be planted throughout the city, and Franklin Park Conservatory opened its acclaimed community garden campus. And Local Matters, a Columbus-based non-profit organization focused on helping the community learn about whole food, recently hosted its 2nd annual “Local Foods” Week and 1st annual “Eat Local” Challenge in the fall of 2010, in which more than 2,000 people participated. All the pieces are in place for Columbus to explode onto the national local whole-foods scene, demonstrating that the construction of a vibrant, regional food system that supports a healthy body, a healthy economy and a healthy ecosystem is well underway.
Despite recent grim obesity and diabetes growth projections, I feel that the future for obesity prevention is bright given that the early days of food-culture change are upon us. Nations are often defined by their food, and Americans are ready for a new definition. Policies that enable families to have whole-foods knowledge and guidance so as to celebrate the diversity of local American flavors and embrace American local cultures will be essential to keeping up this whole-food-culture change momentum so that America is no longer defined by processed foods and obesity.