Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.
–from the opening address of the sixty-seventh session of The World Health Organization’s Assembly, Geneva, Switzerland, May 2014.
Tobacco and junk food—here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.
Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?
You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.
It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.
The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.
Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.