The World Eats (and Dies) like America


While I am not a believer in Dr. Dean Ornish’s “Fat is Bad” approach to nutrition, I thought he gave a thoroughly entertaining lecture on the globalization of America’s obesity epidemic at the TED conference in April of 2007.

The Lecture

During his talk, Dr. Ornish hits the following points:

  • He considers the worldwide spread of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension to a pandemic of global proportion
  • He believes that these conditions to be completely preventable for at least 95% of people, just by changing diet and lifestyle

africa-western-diet-mcdonalds-cokeTo illustrate the growth of this pandemic, Dr. Ornish relates the following data:

  • In one generation, Asia has gone from having one of the lowest rates of chronic disease to having one of the highest
  • Cardiovascular deaths equal HIV/AIDS deaths in most African countries

And why is this happening?

Along with Western (primarily America) culture, the spread of the Western Diet is making it the de facto World Diet. Or as Dr. Ornish says:

  • People are starting to eat like us, live like us, and die like us

So, where do we go from here?

According to Dr. Ornish, that’s up to us. Just like we have helped to globalize the Western Diet, we can also help to globalize a healthier way to eat and live.

Dr. Ornish credits some of America’s large food producers for trying to “make it sexy, hip, cool, sexy, and fun to eat and live more healthfully”

Disclaimer: Dr. Ornish chairs the advisory boards to McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Conagra, Safeway, and Del Monte.

To back up his claims that the big guys are trying to “healthify” their menus, he notes that:

  • Last year, McDonald’s sold 800 million salads
  • 67% of revenue growth at PepsCo last year was from healthier foods”)


Dr. Ornish believes that “if we use diet and lifestyle changes to prevent and treat chronic diseases, we can reverse the spread of chronic “lifestyle” diseases as well as free up precious resources for treating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB and preventing avian flu”

And what happens if we don’t listen to Doc Ornish? What happens if we continue to graze on junk food while watching endless hours of t.v. and internet porn?

de-evolution of man

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  1. A few decades ago people starved to death in Asia, so enough already with the “food is evil” campaign. Dean Ornish has never faced the threat of starvation, so his opinion, while correct in theory, has little real world perspective to draw from.

    If he fears getting fat, fine, but don’t expect people who have lived their entire history on the brink of starvation to lovingly embrace his theories.

    I grant you that obesity can diminish people’s quality of life, but most people get around pretty well. Short of physically restraining people from eating the foods they like, every effort made by the anti fat campaign is bound to failure. Your logical arguments are running up against thousands, if not millions of years of human history and human biochemistry.

    I think you have a better chance of keeping from fearing wild animals than stopping them from eating calorie rich freely available food. Your logic is not wrong, it’s simply impotent.

  2. Youlovejunkfood,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    In regards to your comment, I have a few follow up questions:

    Question #1:

    What do you mean by the “food is evil” campaign?

    I believe that Dr. Ornish’s critque dealt specifically with the stereotypical “Western Diet”.

    While I am generalizing, I would describe the Western Diet as:

    Highly processed
    High in calories
    Low in nutrients – enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc..
    High in grains
    Low in nutrient dense vegetables & fruits
    High in inflammatory fats
    High in pesticides, antibiotics, etc
    Highly acidic
    High in refined sugar…

    His point (and mine) is that the Western Diet is unhealthy. Not evil.

    Question 2:

    I don’t quite understand the relevance of starvation.

    How does Dr. Ornish’s personal experience with starvation undermine his ideas about human nutrition and it’s impact on chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and hypertension?

    I would also disagree with your argument that our bodies are designed to pack away the calories when times are good in order to prepare for future starvation.

    This is a myth.

    Western Dieters are unhealthy because of the type of food they eat.

    Food producers in North America, Europe, etc.. have been very successful at keeping us hungry.

    The food they sell us is nearly devoid of nutritional value.

    High in calories, Low in nutrition

    Because of this, at the cellular level, we are starving.

    This keeps us hungry.

    This keeps us eating

    And since the physiology of the Chinese and the Africans and the Indians, etc… is essentially identical when it comes to metabolism, they will most likely become just as unhealthy as we are.

    Question #3:

    Do you believe that Dr. Ornish’s speech and/or my post are anti-fat, or fatist or fat-phobic?

    I hope that’s not the case.

    Personally, I have a body that is very efficient at converting moderate amounts of calorie dense carbs into body-fat.

    To be at my physical peak, I need to keep grains out of my diet. Focusing on vegetables, fruit, animal protein and various sources of fat keeps me healthy…kind of important, considering my line of work.

    Dr.Ornish, on the other hand, believes that restricting dietary fat is the way to go.

    While I can’t speak for Dr. Ornish on this subject, my research into the topic has led me to consider obesity as a symptom (like high b.p., high cholesterol, etc…) of a larger, more systemic condition brought on by the Western Diet/Lifestyle.

    It just so happens, that obesity is the most obvious symptom. We can’t see high cholesterol on the outside.

    Unfortunately, obesity also has an enormous social stigma attached to it that the other symptoms don’t.

    Question #4

    More of a comment really…in regards to your statement: “Short of physically restraining people from eating the foods they like, every effort made by the anti fat campaign is bound to failure.”

    Ignoring the anti-fat comment, you are probably right.

    There is a lot of money being spent in order to keep us buying junk food.

    There is very little money being spent trying to promote foods that give us the nutrition that our bodies NEED.

    Realistically, Dr.Ornish (me too) is probably just wasting his time. He is preaching to the converted. The people that need to change their diets have already tuned him out.

  3. At the risk of sounding naive. McDonalds is not the only food available in these countries. If now a lot more people in these countries are better off and can afford to buy McD’s they could also afford to buy healthier foods which Im sure are still available. So your point is still valid. They can choose not to eat the junk.

  4. Dr Dan – Sure they can choose to eat healthy. But when the image is that “wealthy” and “cool” people eat a western diet, it is hard to resist. For example, when I visited China a few years ago, I was at this shopping mall in Beijing. The entire shopping mall was a collection of designer stores at American prices! The food court was your typical KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. Guess what, only the wealthy Chinese people and tourists were eating there. The poorer locals were eating outside at the local Chinese owned restaurants (where the food happened to be cheaper too). Marketing impacts our food choices more than you think.

    DR – I love your pictures on this post. That baby picture is disturbing! Yes, what is up with that whopper virgin ad campaign? I saw it on TV for the first time this weekend and I thought is was annoying. Maybe it I am just sick of these marketing campaigns that do these taste test.

  5. Great blog. It’s good to see some blogs that go beyond diet and exercise. I try to do the same. I’ll be reading here again!

  6. Hey, this is a really insightful post. It’s absolutely disgusting how we americans basically feed ourselves to the point of disease… not that it’s even always our fault, considering all the crapola they put in our food without us knowning about it.

    You might like my blog, I talk about a lot of eating alternatives that are healthy not only for us but for the environment.. check me out if you’d like

    hope to hear from you

  7. Good post DR. It’s amazing how we Americans know all the negative impacts of bad food choices on our lives, yet we still choose to not change our behaviors. I liked what asithi said about marketing. Marketing and the media in general have a strong impact on how we perceive food, fitness, and health.

    It’s not a positive thing having the world eating like us. I mean, it’s good for business, I suppose, but not good for individuals or society. People focus on the effects of a Western diet on health, but not really on the effects of society.

    Think about it: unhealthy diets lead to obesity, which leads to all sorts of diseases and premature death. Obesity also has negative impacts on cognitive development and personal development, as well. And people in power know that if the body is not healthy, the mind will not be either.

    So if the mind and the body aren’t strong and healthy, people will continue to seek remedies, which will continue to feed to multi-billion dollar weight loss and self-improvement industries. If the rest of the world becomes like Americans, that’s just more money for them, but more problems for society and individuals.

    Just sayin’.

  8. Sometimes it feels a little bit “conspiracy theory” when I think about how our food and medical services are delivered.

  9. Great post. Although I think Ornish has such a strong anti-fat, anti-cholesterol, anti-meat filter to his perception that he can’t give that great of nutrition advice, he is undoubtedly right in asserting that the spread of obesity and diseases of civilization worldwide is the result of the spread of unhealthy American food.

  10. I agree with everything Ornish is saying, but PLEASE be aware that the people with money and power FROM these countries AGREE to bring in these junk food companies and have no problem whatsoever exploiting their own fellow countrymen who they KNOW will consume profitably. Having lived in several countries, including emerging nations, I can say that it is way too simplistic, although quite a tempting neat proposition, to blame American junk food companies for the diseases that are now afflicting these countries. And if Ornish accepts the payment as an advisor on boards of these companies, why isn’t he doing WAY more to put his money where his mouth is?! I just see his meek article as a way to salve his own conscience. Take a bigger stand, Dr. Ornish, and get out of bed with these folks and use your knowledge, money, influence, and stellar skill set to get yourself over to countries for a few months. Then, come back, and give us your insights.

  11. Sorry, I mean I agree with the BASIC PREMISE of Ornish’s argument — ie — empty kcals and high fat, high simple sugars are contributing to higher incidences of chronic diseases in other countries of the world other than America. The rest of my comment holds — ie — it’s not just America helping to globalize its diet — the fault also lies in decision-makers’ hands from these other countries.

  12. It’s pretty simple really. These foods are bad for you and should only be consumed in moderation – unless you want to die a premature death, which is fine if that’s what you want. Wanna die early? Eat loads of fast food. Wanna live? Only eat every so often. Simple.

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