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What is a Toxic Food Environment?

What is a Toxic Food Environment?

What is a Toxic Food Environment

You are likely to live in a toxic environment if you live in the United States. This is defined as an environment in which poor eating habits, such as overeating and eating unhealthy food, are encouraged or supported. While food is technically safe and easy to find, choosing healthy food can be difficult. The United States has a toxic food environment.

The term ‘toxic food environment’ was coined by author Dr. Kelly Brownell, whose book “Food Fight: The Inside Story of America’s Obesity Crisis – and What We Can Do About It,” explores the roots of America’s obesity epidemic. He writes that the United States is a “culture that feeds its pets better than its children, that targets the poor and children as a market for high-calorie, low-nutrition junk food and manipulates children into poor eating habits with toy giveaways and in-school promotions.”

Our food environment is something we may not always notice – it surrounds us, silently and constantly influencing the choices we make, even if we think of ourselves as independent thinkers. Because it’s everywhere. The sheer number of fast-food restaurants is perhaps the most obvious marker of our toxic food environment but that’s just the beginning.

The totality of a food environment also includes federal issues like agricultural policies, and hyper-local issues like ease of permitting for farmers’ markets. Experts believe that obesity and overeating are caused by food engineering and marketing, as well as the constant availability of food and condition-driven behaviors.  

How big an epidemic is obesity? First, let’s define the term. A person who has a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher is considered obese. A person who is overweight has between 25-29 BMI. In 2020, 16 states had obesity rates above 35 percent. In 2019, 12 states were at this level. Oklahoma was on both lists and has a combined obesity-overweight rate of more than 67%. Today, 17.3 per cent of Oklahoma high school students are overweight or obese, and 36.5 percent of adults in Oklahoma are obese. As of 2020, Oklahoma is ranked ninth in the country for adult obesity.

The pandemic isn’t helping. USNewsAccording to reports, 42 percent of Americans reported that they gained an unwelcome amount of weight since the pandemic. According to a Harris Poll, we gained an average of 29 lbs in February 2021. 

Obesity can be dangerous and can lead to poor mental health, decreased quality of life, and a host of chronic conditions and illnesses like stroke, gallbladder disease and sleep apnea.

Fast food is an especially wily foe for those trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle because it’s everywhere and it’s carefully engineered to make you want it. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss explores fast food companies’ extraordinary tactics used to keep us craving what they serve in his book, “Hooked.” 

Says he: “One of the hallmarks of addiction that scientists who are studying drug addiction discovered back in the 1990s was that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are as a result to act compulsively, impulsively. They sort of talk about tobacco, alcohol, and drug products in terms the speed they hit the brain. It turns out, food is the fastest thing in terms of its ability to hit the brain. This puts the concept of “fast food” in a new light. In fact, I like to call what we’re talking about here “fast groceries” — that 90% of the middle part of the grocery store. We refine these things, because everything about the processed food industry is about speed, from the manufacturing to the packaging — making it easy for us to open up those packages and get at the food — to the actual speed of their products exciting our brains.

If there are an average of 2-5 fast food restaurants per mile for most of us (there are), and if we’re enduring thousands of junk food advertising messages per year (we are), and food companies and engineers are doing their darndest to make low-quality food addictive (they are), how can we as individuals take charge of our own personal food environments and detoxify them?

Here are some strategies:

Make your home a healthy place to eat. If you don’t buy junk food in the first place, it’s much less convenient to eat it. You can make your home a no-junk zone. 

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As much as possible, eat whole, natural foods.Stick to foods that are close to their original form: a baked potato, a chicken breast, or nuggets, an apple instead of apple pie, and so forth. Be a label reader, too. Even something as simple as a loaf bread can contain 50 ingredients, 45 of which you will probably want to avoid.  

Avoid the processed and sugary foods. We’re talking sodas, candy bars, chips, cookies, crackers and fruit juices. Sometimes a zero tolerance policy is the best option when it comes to sugary foods that are highly addictive and craveable. Many of us don’t have the money to buy cookies and chips, but we can eat small portions of them occasionally as a treat. So don’t even go there.

Cook at home and plan ahead. You don’t have to be a chef to make tasty, healthy, filling foods for yourself and your family right in your own kitchen. Once you get in the habit of cooking, you may find it’s a fun creative outlet and you’ll certainly save yourself some time and money. Make a batch of healthy turkey Chili and freeze half. Then you’ll have your own stash of ‘fast food.’   

Take the time to learn healthy eating habits when dining out. Ask for vegetables to replace starchy sides. Don’t eat the bread. Ask for salad dressing. Box up half your meal before you even begin – restaurant portions are huge. 

When you feel the need to eat sweet fruits, focus on them. A handful of frozen or fresh strawberries on top of Greek-style yogurt with honey is a much better option than strawberry icecream. 


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