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The Classist Problem of The 'Real Food Diet'

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Last week, The Atlantic reported a story about a group of researchers looking through the various fad diets out there (i.e., Paleo, Mediterranean, vegan) to find the best in terms of overall health. The shocking conclusion: None of them. At least, none of them were head and shoulders above the rest in a way where one could be touted as "the healthiest." Sure, some diets had specific benefits for users with particular needs -- say, the gluten-free diet for someone with celiac disease -- but all of them came with big caveats for the population as a whole.

Instead, the diet that came out as the victor in the research: "Real food." To which the proper response should be: "No kidding. Now tell us something useful."

As Dr. David Katz, the main researcher behind the study, put it:

A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.

It's a conclusion that certainly makes sense, but also one that isn't new. It's essentially the same concept Michael Pollen famously espoused in the intro to his 2007 New York Times piece: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (The phrase is even name-checked by Katz in The Atlantic's story.) More websites and Facebook pages and books have been created/written over the past few years promoting the "real food diet" than can be linked; a Google search for the phrase leads to over one million hits. In short, if you want to be healthy, a whole lot of people suggest you stop eating processed foods and start eating natural things.

But is that realistic?

If you're fairly well off -- which means in this particular instance, you don't have to worry about having enough money to eat -- you should be following the real food diet. No question about it. But before someone starts pushing that point of view onto others, they should keep in mind that they're coming from a place of privilege. There's a reason low income people have a higher risk of being obese, and that reason is not "laziness."

It's because it's damn hard to eat real food if you don't have money.

Think about how difficult it is to justify the hefty grocery receipt bill from a place like Whole Foods. Now imagine you have substantially less money in your bank account, and have to drive an hour or so out of your way just to shop there. Because if you're poor, odds are you're living in a food desert, and options like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's aren't nearby, and even if they were, would be way too expensive to be realistic. If you want to shop at an area farmers' market instead? Good luck. As of last year, fewer than half of all farmers' markets took SNAP benefits.

There's also the issue of education. As this piece from NPR details, simply putting a fresh produce section in a food desert doesn't necessarily help, seeing as it takes time for people to adapt to this new option:

"The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come," says Stephen Matthews, professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University. [...] What they're finding, Matthews says, is a bit surprising: "We don't find any difference at all. ... We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption."

Creating a fresh produce section in a food desert is simply step one. Step two is alerting people about what kind of food's there, how to prepare it, and why it's healthier for them than whatever high-sugar/high-fat cheap junk food they're used to. But that education takes time. And for grocery stores looking at the bottom line, it's tough to justify keeping a section of the store intact that keeps losing them money.

(These are just a few of the problems with the "real food diet": For example, consider a person with an impairment who can't readily go out shopping, and even if they have someone shop for them, they can't cook it all for themselves. How do they go about partaking in a "real food diet?")

What the Real Food Movement's been getting wrong is they think they're doing the world a service by promoting the message that "eating real food is good for you." Of course it is. We've known that forever. Now, tell us -- all of us -- how to actually do it.

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