Responses to Atlantic Junk Food Article

Here are several articles that have been written in response to my recent article in The Atlantic. They are, not surprisingly, highly critical of it. (There isn’t much point in writing a whole article to explain how you agree with another article.)

Salon_website_logoSalon: The Atlantic’s latest silly idea is wrong: No, fast food won’t cure obesity by Deena Shanker
Written by a True Believer of the wholesome foodie movement. Big Food is evil and must die! Just tell the poor obese to eat farm-fresh vegetables and they’ll drop their Big Macs and buy everything at farm stands, and everyone will be healthy!

GristGrist: No, fast food isn’t good for you: In defense of Pollanites by Nathaniel Johnson
Written by a smart guy, but unfortunately he focuses in one small, relatively unimportant part of my argument and treats it like it’s my whole piece. See my comment under the article and his response.

mj logo.inddMother Jones: Why the Atlantic’s Defense of Junk Food Fails by Tom Philpott

It was really sad to see this piece. If any publication should have empathy for the plight of the unhealthy poor, you’d think it would be Mother Jones. But no, this was just a dopey, rote screed by an Atkinite, that small but incredibly loud cult of ultra-low-carbers who have become the LaRouchians of the dietary world. Calories don’t matter! Exercise doesn’t help! Eat all the fatty foods you want! It’s all about the carbs! The Atkinites like to claim that everyone else is stuck in the “low-fat craze” of the 1980s. They don’t like to mention that the low-carb craze dates to the 1860s. For the record: It’s best to trim both carbs and fat. Ask your doctor, or any obesity expert.

imagesUS News & World Report: The Myth of Healthy Processed Food by Melanie Warner
I would have expected this piece to be the least sympathetic to my argument, because it’s written by Melanie Warner, whom I call out in my article as one of the more prominent anti-processed-food voices. But this was probably the fairest and smartest of the pieces, in that it at least acknowledged some of the points I make about the ways the wholesome food movement leaves out the poor obese. (But it was still very critical.)

Forbes_LogoForbes: Food And Racism: No Not Paula Dean, At “The Atlantic” by Todd Essig
I’m a racist, because I suggest poor people are particularly hard hit by obesity. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Forbes_LogoForbes: Why Junk Food Can’t End Obesity: The “Milkshake Study” vs. “The Atlantic” by Todd Essig
I don’t even know what this odd piece is claiming, but it seems pretty critical. Are any editors awake over there at Forbes?

27 thoughts on “Responses to Atlantic Junk Food Article

  1. Helen Seagraves says:

    Billed as a report on how fast foods can be good foods, instead we have a polemic against whole food advocates. By advocating fresh fruits and vegetables they handcuff McDonalds chefs who want to make their food healthy but can’t because of a NYTimes food writer and an author few McDonald customers read?

    • Well, that would be one way to describe my article. I’d like to simply suggest that people read it and judge for themselves, but I’ve discovered that most of my critics don’t actually bother reading it, so let me summarize it in a way that someone who isn’t a True Believer in the Power of Wholesome Food to Solve All Problems might. We have an obesity crisis that is one of the worst health crises ever faced by humanity–it is on track for robbing Americans alone of a combined billion years of human life. Everyone, including the Wholesome Foodies, keep screaming that the problem is that the population has been hooked on junk food loaded with fat and sugar. The solution I propose is that we cajole, threaten and incentivize the junk food companies to lower the fat and sugar in their foods. Sound pretty reasonable? It’s not to the wholesome foodies. They say the only solution is to get the world not eating any processed food sold by big companies, and instead for everyone to eat fruit and vegetables right out of the farm. Never mind that the obese aren’t ready to drop junk food for lettuce. Never mind that the obese, who are disproportionately poor and tend to live in food deserts, can’t afford or access wholesome food. Never mind that some wholesome food is loaded with fat and sugar. Just tell everyone to eat natural food, and everyone will do it and be healthier and the obesity crisis will go away. I’m not making any of this up. Read their comments on my article. They believe this. They angrily object to any suggestion that we can help obese people by getting big food companies to make their food healthier. It’s apples and kale, or it’s nothing. Really, it’s kind of crazy. But it’s a big movement, and very influential. And it threatens to guarantee that the food companies won’t do enough to fix their foods, because the wholesome foodies make it clear that they’ll object to anything these companies do, because their food isn’t natural, even if they lower fat and sugar. If the big food companies think that they can’t get any credit for healthier food, they’ll be forced to keep relying on the same junk. In this way, the wholesome foodies are holding the obese population hostage to silly, quasi-religious beliefs about food and health.

      • Mark R. Jacobson says:

        I read your article. Interesting. But what you do not address is the lack of cooking skills in poor households with obesity problems. dried beans, brown rice, onions, peppers, cumin, and some corn tortillas can feed a household very cheaply and very healthily. there’s many ways for unemployed people to provide healthy food for their household, if they had the skills of cooking at home. eating fast food robs people of this opportunity to learn and keep the household budget down. perhaps, before someone goes on welfare or gets food stamps, cooking lessons should be required.

        what also is missing from your article is an investigation of the quality of the food being served. in the last year i’ve found hair in my food at restaurants several times and a toothpick in refried beans that poked a good hole the roof of my mouth. (thank you ruby tuesday and others; i’ve sworn off restaurants altogether.) But an examination of the food sold by fast food establishments, by health and sanitation experts, would, perhaps, dissuade people from spending money at these places. my money is on them finding “rats in the soup” at everyone of these establishments. who wants to eat dead skin, hair, and the host of other disgusting things that contaminate fast food in between the farm and paper bag.

        people do not like to be told what to eat, but they should be told WHAT it is that they are eating.

  2. […] And, I’m not alone. Salon,  Grist,  and Mother Jones  are shocked as well. Freedman posted early responses to his article. […]

  3. Jackie says:

    Hello David H. Freedman! I would like to know what has influenced your recent interest in the obesity crisis in America, and also what prompted you to write this article?

    • Wish I had a dramatic, personal story to share about what led me here. (And I’ve been writing about obesity for several years now, though you could call it a relatively recent focus.) But it was just a growing interest in both health and behavior change, a gradual realization that obesity had to be the key target for maximum health improvement for the population (or at least tied with smoking, with obesity likely to pull ahead), and frustration with what I saw as the ineffective, inaccessible and somewhat silly philosophies/solutions that journalist/gurus were hawking to influential but gullible readers, who were gobbling them up uncritically while ignoring science, evidence and reason.

  4. Eric says:

    So if I’m reading your argument correct here…then “Wholesome Foodies” like Growing Power’s Will Allen ( are just wasting their time and would be much more effective partnering up with McDonald’s to lower calories in the Big Mac?

    • No, sorry, you’re not reading me correctly. I’m a huge supporter of community gardens, CSAs, and any efforts to improve the poor and vulnerable’s access to produce, the fresher the better. But such programs are not likely to make more than the barest dent in the obesity problem compared to what producing healthier junk food would do, so people who work on or support fresh-produce-access should at least passively support, rather than oppose, healthier processed food even while they work to make fresh produce more accessible and appealing to the poor obese.

      • Tom Philoott says:

        What does “passively supporting” healthier processed food entail? I doubt Will Allen has much time to picket McDonald’s effort to slash calories, so he probably counts as a passive supporter of such efforts.

  5. Tom Philoott says:

    How in the world did you get the idea I’m an “Atkinite”? (And when di Mr Atkins lose his “s”?) Because I don’t clutch my pearls over bacon in a dish, find the idea of a yolk-less omelet dismal (I didn’t say that, but I did cock an eye and the Egg White McNuffin or whatever it’s called), consider “fat-free guacamole” an abomination, and fat-free salad dressing just an abuse of good greens? I find the Atkins diet to be ridiculous. But I also think an attack on dietary fat, unbacked by any science, is just silly. Can you cite any evidence that any of these products improve health, or that a bit of pork fat with some fresh corn is bad for health in moderation? By all means, cut down on added fats—hydrogenated oils and whatnot. But to remove the nutrient-dense yolk from an egg? Strip the marvelous fat from an avocado? Why? And where do I attack exercise? I don’t even remember your mentioning it in your 10k word screed. For the record, I’m very pro-exercise. I’ve never seen evidence that anything but a diverse diet of whole foods, based mainly on fruits and veg but including high-quality fats, grains, and (pasture-raised) meats (the latter not being necessary, but just fine in moderation) can keep people healthy. That does not mean I don’t care about “the unhealthy poor.” I do not pretend that making such a diet available and palatable to everyone will be easy, nor to I claim to have *the* answer for doing so, You are peddling a simplistic solution–that the food industry merely reformulate its junk to make it less junky—that seems to me highly dubious.

    • Nice try, Tom. You put a lot of lipstick on it here, but in your Salon article you make it clear you’ve drunk the Atkinite Koolaid, whether you like the label or not. Your article states in no uncertain terms that you dispute what the vast majority of scientists and doctors say about dietary fat–namely, that avoiding high levels of dietary fat should be a part–read those last two words carefully, folks, “A PART”–of a good plan for long-term weight loss. I never suggest fat-reduction as the core of such a plan, not in my Atlantic article nor anywhere else, and always mention fat-reduction in the context of also advocating a reduction in problem carbs. (Nor, by the way, do I ever suggest anywhere that fat or carbs need to be drastically reduced, I always advocate for moderate reductions when there is a lot of it, as in junk food. I make a point of eating fair amounts of fat in my diet, and suggest the same to others.) So when you object to my article on the grounds that I advocate reducing dietary fat, but remain silent on my attached claims that we need to reduce sugar and other problem carbs, you are making it crystal clear that you think we need to reduce carbs, but not fat. I don’t know if you’re truly not familiar with the central claim of the Atkins diet, or are just being dishonest about it, but most of us know what it is: reduce carbs, don’t worry about fat. (Yes, I know, “added” fat is bad for health, it’s only fats in unprocessed foods that are totally good for you in unlimited amounts and won’t make it harder to lose weight, because of the magical powers in unprocessed food.)

      But never mind all that. I don’t even use the term “Atkinite” (or as you seem to want me to call you, Atkinsites–doesn’t sound right to me, but suit yourself) to literally mean people who follow the Atkins diet, I mean it to denote the most recent incarnation of the “it’s all about the carbs” movement largely founded by journalist Gary Taubes. Gary originally built his claims around Atkins and his diet, but later came to avoid being associated with the Atkins diet, presumably because it has been so thoroughly discredited, but that doesn’t make the association any less accurate. As if it weren’t clear enough from your “don’t worry about the fat, but do worry about the carbs” stance that you’ve bought into this movement, the real tip-off is when you start ranting in your Salon article about how calories don’t matter, again in contradiction to what the vast majority of obesity experts and doctors say. That’s Gary’s central claim–the same Gary who built his theory around Atkins. Let’s review: Calories don’t matter. Dietary fat doesn’t matter. Carbs matter a lot. Dude, you’re an Atkinite! Be loud and be proud.

      (To any readers who haven’t yet drunk the Koolaid on Atkinism, but who find themselves intrigued, let me urge you to not base your decision on what I, or Tom, or Gary, or Michael Pollan, or Mark Bittman, or any journalist tells you, no matter how sciencey they try to make themselves sound. Instead, ask your doctor if going on a high-fat, high-calorie diet is a good route to long-term weight loss. Your doctor is trained to sift through real scientific evidence, combine it with years of experience and with the opinions and observations of their similarly trained colleagues, all for the purpose of giving their patients the advice they need to be healthy. Journalists, on the other hand, are trained to tell people whatever will get them article contracts or book deals or speaking gigs. Well, that’s not strictly true, but you get the idea. I don’t claim to be immune. In any case, I’ll defer to your doctor any day, and any journalist who won’t is not your friend when it comes to critical health decisions.)

      Now, the exercise thing is another story. I apologize for apparently getting you wrong on that one. But let me say a few words about where I was coming from. Gary Taubes argues that science proves exercise doesn’t help with weight loss, yet again in defiance of what almost all obesity experts and doctors say. (Gary also argues that science proves we shouldn’t worry about cutting down on salt, but let’s let that one lie.) Since you’ve drunk the Koolaid on Gary’s dietary claims, I assumed you trusted his ability to determine what science does and doesn’t prove on critical health decisions, and that you therefore probably went along with his claims on exercise. But you say that’s not true, so I’ll take your word for it, and again apologize. Though I’d be interested in hearing some time why you feel comfortable trusting Gary on his interpretation of the science on calories and dietary fat, but don’t trust him on his interpretation of the science on exercise. Seems to me someone is either capable of being a reliable guide to the science, or he or she isn’t–I myself wouldn’t treat a person’s claims about science like a smorgasbord from which you’re free to pick whichever ones you like but ignore the others. If you believe that Gary is way off in his claims about exercise–you seem positively enthusiastic about the role of exercise, as am I–how could you be comfortable with his colorful, iconoclastic claims about diets? Just curious.

      • Tom Philpott says:

        I seem to have become a proxy in some battle of yours against Gary Taubes. I am not Gary Taubes. Don’t take yolks out of eggs does not mean “don’t worry about fat.” Don’t take fat out of avocados does not mean “don’t worry about fat.” Etc. Where I find Taubes compelling is in his critique of added sugar, which does indeed seem a major problem in many people’s diets. Just because I have a critique of excessive sweeteners does not mean that i advocate for, say, stripping sugar out of apples. A sugar-free apple is just as ludicrous to me as a fat-free egg. If Taubes is fine with, say, actively adding fat to processed food, then i think he’s wrong. If Taubes thinks exercise doesn’t improve health, he’s wrong. If he thinks weight loss aloneis the important goal, and not improving overall health, then I think he’s wrong. Fat shaming gets us nowhere (not saying Taubes does that, necessarily). Please don’t look at me and shadow box with Gary Taubes. It’s insulting. Ask Corby Kummer about my work.

      • You may be right. I’m going to take a closer look at your work (not that I didn’t make some effort before, but possibly not enough). I do tend to assume that anyone that focuses their objections on the fact that I include going easy on fat as helpful for most people who want to lose weight and keep it off forever, and who says I’m not up on the new science of nutrition, and complains about my insistence that calories matter, has fallen under Gary’s spell. It’s a little hard to see where else someone would get these ideas, unless it’s from someone else who has fallen under Gary’s spell, given that it’s hard to find obesity or nutrition scientists who say any of these things–it’s pretty unique to Gary and a very small minority of scientists, most of them focused on metabolism, which is only one factor in excess weight (and probably the least important one, though I don’t feel strongly about that). Most scientists–especially those who work with the obese on long-term weight loss–find these claims wildly wrong and unhelpful. And by the way, Gary is a friend, and a hero of mine–I think he’s gotten at some great science here, but has taken it a bit too far and is misleading in the claims he makes for it (or in the claims he allows people to think he’s making for it, he actually doesn’t generally explicitly claim his theory provides a solution to the obesity epidemic).

  6. Michael Mann says:

    Mr. Freedman,

    Just finished the article. There’s lots I disagree with, but I just want to point out the multiple times you use the phrase “fat and sugar and other problem carbs.” As you know, there’s a big difference in the body’s need for, and how it processes, fat and carbs. As someone with at least a passing familiarity with Taubes, I wonder if you’ve read Why We Get Fat, or Good Calories, Bad Calories? That’s the other glaring mistake you make ( lots of nutritionists do too, by the way) considering all calories equal, and thus perpetuating the failed “calories in/calories out” model of diet and exercise. Fast food, and food engineering, isn’t going to cure obesity, since carbs – not fat – are the main culprit, and carbs are subsidized under the farm bill, and they’re what fuels big Ag and the fast food industry. A better solution – not complete, but more comprehensive that what you offer, is to end corn subsidies. If sugar costs what it should, or better yet was regulated as the addictive drug it is like tobacco and alcohol, I think we’d see the obesity epidemic begin to turn around, since most agree that soda and sugared drinks are the #1 culprit – and they contain no fat.

  7. […] bigger burger with no bun and stop selling fries, sodas and shakes. Here’s Freedman’s list of responses to his article with a little bit of commentary on each […]

  8. Zach says:

    I came to this site in an attempt to better understand what could have motivated someone to so brazenly and blatantly shill, under the banner of journalism, for some of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world. I gotta say, I remain confused.

    It’s not that you don’t make some valid points in your Atlantic piece. But those points that are valid have been made repeatedly, with greater clarity and perspective, elsewhere. In fact, your favorite bugbear, Michael Pollan, has done so. He devotes and entire chapter in The Omnivore’s Dilemma to chronicling the problems in the corporatization and industrialization of what you dub “wholesome food,” pointing out that several items available in Whole Foods are obvious and unhealthful distortions of the original principals of organic, local food. But to ridicule Pollan as if he were in some way advocating for more calorie-packed, soy-dominated pseudofood is either ignorant or willfully misleading. I’m assuming you’ve read his books, and if you have, how do you explain it? It’s barely worth mentioning your non-sequitur picaresque through LA’s ditzy netherworld of smoothies and veggie-shakes, other than it seems to be more opportunities for you to obfuscate the position of your chosen opponents.

    And it only gets worse – sweeping judgements about the attitudes of the urban poor, whom you condescendingly consign to a perpetual reliance on cheap, processed food. But you claim to be unaware of the stark elitism, and yes, creeping racism, in such attitudes. And what do you have to back it up? Just a little jaunt through the bad part of town, peppered with anecdotes about bodegas being as bad, if not worse, than McDonald’s.

    All the while, you intersperse your piece with seemingly offhand asides, mini-concessions, to the basic principles of those you seek to discredit: organic is good, local is good, wouldn’t it be nice if there were even more CSAs. But you can’t expect people to take this seriously, when the major thrust of your argument is that the leading exponents of such measures are entitled buffoons. I’m sure we should all be very impressed with your frequent reference to food science, but your conclusions are vivid examples of the glibness that so many policymakers have exhibited in their adoption of faulty studies and trials. I don’t believe that you’re as oblivious as you claim to the problems with engineered, processed food – the dubious reconstruction of proteins, fats, and fibers, the re-insertion of vitamins, and the adding of various chemicals to enhance flavor and shelf-life.

    In short, speaking as someone who bothers to be independently well-informed, and who trains his skepticism on the status quo before those who would challenge it, I’m unpersuaded. Your central thesis remains as ludicrous as the idea that we should entrust the fossil fuel industry to fix climate change. Just thought you should know.

    • Thanks for writing, Zach, and sharing your feelings. First of all, let me say that I do recognize I have assaulted your deeply felt religious beliefs, and understand how upsetting this is for a True Believer such as yourself. Secondly, let me thank you for that opening line of your comment, which, among the vast sea of self-caricaturing statements with which I have recently been bombarded by brainwashed robots, stands out as one that I expect to get a lot of laughs from the many people I intend to quote it to–people who are capable of actual intelligent thought and discourse.

      Oh, how I wish I had time to explain to you, point by point, where you wander far, far off the track of logic and evidence with virtually every single word that creeps off your keyboard. But I don’t, on top of which I’m all too aware that it would be a complete waste of time, because no amount of explanation or piling on of simple fact could possibly even begin to breach the wall you have constructed around your deeply confused view of the world. But let me waste just a few seconds of time posing two simple questions to you–questions that would give serious pause to any thinking person, but I know will sail over and past your head without stirring a single hair or neuron:

      1) What, exactly, is your plan to get 100 million obese people in the U.S.–people heading for an early death–eating fresh produce that many of them can’t afford, can’t access, don’t want to cook, and just plain don’t want to eat because they are hooked on junky food?

      2) What, exactly, is your objection to trying to make the processed food these folks feel compelled to eat a bit more healthy while you are putting your brilliant plan into action?

      I look forward to opening your mind a bit to a different point of view, and the thoughtful answer that you will provide as a result. Just kidding!

  9. […] eating “whole foods.” As you might expect, the anti-processed food voices have heavily criticized Freedman by repeating arguments that a “calorie is not a calorie” (for a better […]

  10. Mike Bevel says:

    Some questions that occurred to me reading your article and then several of the responses you linked to:

    1) You mention several times the amount of fat in some wholesome foods. In your research, and in how you understand food science, is all fat really just fat? My understanding — limited — is that there are good fats that we need in our diets for some metabolic processes (that’s a thing, right?) and for nutrient absorption. But in your article, you don’t speak of good fats and bad fats; you seem to categorize them all as “fat” and find them lacking.

    2) You write, “To repeat: there is no hard evidence to back any health-risk claims about processed food.” Is the jury really still out on hydrogenated oils? Or are hydrogenated oils not a part of processed foods?

    • 1) In discussing the healthfulness of food in my article, I explicitly focus in on obesity. In terms of weight control, there is no evidence to suggest that some fats are more of a problem than others. Most people do better in long-term weight loss by applying moderation to their consumption of all dietary fat.

      2) Partially hydrogenated oils, which are a type of trans-fat, have indeed been linked with health problems–and though it could be argued that the evidence isn’t “hard” that this is so, I myself wouldn’t argue that, and agree they should be considered unhealthy. Trans-fats have been fast disappearing from all processed food, but still turn up in some of them–and I probably should have mentioned that as an exception, if an increasingly irrelevant one. What’s more, trans-fats also appear in some unprocessed foods, including beef, lamb and some dairy products, though generally in low amounts. In any case, thanks for pointing that out. It’s not really important to the points that I make in the article, because everyone agrees that trans-fats are unhealthy–and I argue for reducing all fats (along with problem carbs) in all foods in order to help with obesity. The Pollanites, on the other hand, try to argue that all processed foods are unhealthy, and all unprocessed foods are healthy, regardless of trans-fats or any other kind of fat or problem carb. That’s the silly, science-free point of view that my article argues against, and is what I meant by saying that there is no evidence processed food is uniquely unhealthy.

  11. […] Freedman’s response to various critiques (and links to them) […]

  12. Mr. Freeman,

    You claim there is no scientific evidence; A quick google brought me this study by Barr & Wright (2009): This shows that the digestive working of processed and non processed foods differ greatly. How come you repeatedly state there is no evidence? Surely you must’ve come across this study during your research?

    I would also like to add that weight loss is a lot more than calories,fat and sugars. This is proven by the fat heavy “caveman diet” or paleo. The argument that fat is double in caloric count than sugar seems very feeble in this appraoch.
    I don’t think anybody who approaches whole food serious (or the so called pollanites) say that all whole food is healthy, as if a diet based on eating only organic whole butter would work. I think their main point is being able to trace the food your eating rather than eating processed food bathed with hidden chemicals and sugar.

    I recognize the huge problem of a lower income population with no access to good foods. The solution could be two things: do we bring them good foods or do we try to make the junk food better. You went with the second option, blaming our ignorant people for not knowing any better and being hooked on fast food. I (perhaps naively) believe that with education and making it accessible those groups too can change their diets. Of course any change in fast food for the better is a step in the right direction, but I fear the economic pressure on big chains to be profitable, to match competition will always win over their soft idealistic notion to give people nutrients and abolish obesity.

    Find my full response here, if you’re up for it:

    • Thanks for sharing your theories. And thanks for the evidence you cite about the greater healthfulness of unprocessed foods. In fact, one can find a few scientific studies to back up any claim, no matter how ridiculous. That’s why in the article I qualified my claim by referring to “clear, credible” evidence.

      • Are you saying the article I suggested is not clear, credible evidence? Did you take the time to read in it the 9 minutes it took you to respond or were you already familiar with the study?

        Perhaps do you have a list of references you used to compile your article so I can educate myself with some clear, credible evidence?

  13. Are you saying the article I suggested is not clear, credible evidence? Did you take the time to read in it the 9 minutes it took you to respond or were you already familiar with the study?

    Perhaps do you have a list of references you used to compile your article so I can educate myself with some clear, credible evidence?

    • Bob.S says:

      For the record, the article you cite as research belgianbill218 involves the minimal number of candidates, published in a journal where stats are only verified if they are complicated and one of the authors of the article is a business student with an MBA. I think this is what Freedman refers to when he wants to see “clear, credible” evidence.

      For the record, I am just a healthy living advocate, am aware I came into this discussion late and was simply interested in what journalists consider research with regards to this subject.

  14. […] further show how little he really knows about modern thinking on nutrition. In particular, here is what he said to a nice response piece from Tom Philpott at Mother […]

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