Take No Prisoners

Redefining Food: A Radical Proposal to Reduce Obesity

Every time I visit the United States I am reminded of just how massive the obesity problem is. It’s time to start getting creative about addressing this issue. One problem, believe it or not, is that people don’t seem to know which foods are bad for them. Here’s a radical idea: how about we try restricting the definition of food, to, you know, things that are good to eat.

Now you may think that “food” comprises anything that some idiot dares to swallow. Considering that this dude who ate a plane, I suggest that defining food as anything anyone eats is pragmatically untenable.

I suppose you may be thinking that this is silly because lightbulbs and screws are indigestible, and therefore clearly not food. Well, cellulose walls make celery and corn kernels indigestible as well, but aren’t they still food? Those packets of silica that are put in boxes to absorb order say “do not eat” won’t actually kill you if you eat them, but that doesn’t make them a food! If a eating too much of a mushroom will poison you, we say it’s not a food, but eating too much nutmeg will fuck you up just as bad, and that’s still called a food.

What if we ditch digestibility as the basis for calling something a food? Is aspartame really a food? Yes, the body can metabolize it, but it is devoid of nutrition. The same goes for white sugar and white flour, both “nutritionless monstrosities” that contribute to diabetes and degenerative diseases.

Suppose, instead, that we defined food as any substance that is a significant source of nutrition (i.e., vitamins and minerals) when digested by a typical human. We can further define a junk food as a food that has an unbalanced proportion of fat or simple carbohydrates, or a large amount of a harmful substance, such as salt, alcohol or nitrates.

The astute reader will quickly recognize how this will shake up the junk food industry. Much of what is currently called junk food is here reclassified as non-food. Most candies, some chocolate bars, kool-aid, oreos, white bread, instant white rice and iceberg lettuce are non-foods. Natural ice cream, steak, ground beef and beer are junk foods. Brown rice, whole wheat bread, kiwis, salmon and spinach are foods.

Finally, let’s take this one step further, and make purveyors of non-foods print “non-food” in big letters on the packages of their offerings. Junk food should be suitably marked. In fact, I would go so far as to relegate non-foods to different aisles than real foods.

What I’m trying to say that putting Tang next to orange juice, hot dogs next to chicken breasts and whole wheat bread next to white bread is confusing, because it suggests that these things are somehow similar. They’re not. Tang is not a fruit juice, hot dogs are not meat, and white bread is not even a food, if we look at its nutritional content. Separating real foods from junk foods and non-foods might drive home the message of what’s OK to eat.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to choose what they eat; I’m saying that society should make it easy for people to make informed choices. Restricting the definition of food is an easy way to help people who don’t have the time (or sometimes the intelligence) to learn about proper nutrition. Of course, the definitions I’ve proposed are quite general, and need to be applied intelligently, but we have to start somewhere.

Although we won’t know for sure until we try it, I suspect that marking many common supermarket items, “NOT A FOOD” will have a strong psychological effect on potential buyers. The junk food lobby will surely rally against this but… well… fuck ’em. Hershey and Cadbury are not going to pay for your quadruple bypass, are they?