07/01/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Fast Food Fantasy

With the possible exception of a restroom stop along the highway, I have not been in a McDonald's in roughly 35 years. And I have never been to Bolivia. Finally, I have long contended that our food demand trumps the food supply and reject the apparent dogma that we should eat the junk we are getting.

That combination of factors may explain why I was initially vulnerable to what may be an apocryphal tale that wags the prevailing dietary dogma. When I read that the country of Bolivia had booted out McDonald's because the population rejected fast food, I was intrigued. When I searched news sites for the story and found seeming corroboration, I was genuinely excited.

So much so that I developed my weekly blog for US News & World Report around this story. Those of you who read me there may have seen it. You may also note that the piece has been pulled. My editors and I decided to remove it after hearing back from several people who live in Bolivia that the story lacks credibility. There really is no substitute for boots on the ground. McDonald's likely left Bolivia because business was bad there, but there are plenty of other fast food restaurants that in population centers at least are doing just fine.

So the idea that Bolivians invoked a native distrust of fast food to change their dietary landscape is, apparently, a fantasy. So be it. It's a good fantasy! The notion that Bolivians could have booted out McDonald's, that the story could have been true, is enough.

I recently proposed the seemingly radical concept of eradicating "kid food." The proposition clearly struck a chord, and I do intend to follow up on my pledge to establish a national day of boycott. My colleagues and I are already engaged in the early orchestration of those plans, so please expect to hear more on that topic as things move along. In the interim, if so inclined, please sign my petition to express support for the concept.

The concept is that kid food, along with innumerable other objectionable aspects of modern eating, are not ineradicable fixtures of the foodscape. The concept quite simply is that we can decide what qualifies as the food that fuels our bodies' daily activities, and serves as the one and only construction material for the growing bodies of children we love.

The notion that the food supply simply is what it is, and is all but immutably so, seems to have evolved into a kind of dogma all its own. We accept that the typical American diet is at odds with health, and yet we allow it to remain typical. We speak about junk food and have drunk so deeply of the associated Kool-Aid that we have, seemingly, come to consider it a legitimate food group.

There is a tendency to talk about the "food supply" as if it were some fixed thing in the landscape, something we are obligated to tolerate forever. The food supply sounds rather like the Himalayas. The typical American diet is as inexorable as the tides.

But I have long harbored a hope, buoyed occasionally by real-world experience, that demand trumps supply. That if we don't come, they'll stop building it. That the business of any business, intent on doing well, is to keep the customer satisfied. And we, being the customer, get to decide what satisfies us.

Let's pause on that for just a second. We get to decide what satisfies us. Others can decide what to offer, only we get to decide what to take. Others decide what to peddle, only we get to decide what to purchase. Others control the selling, but we truly do control the satisfaction.

Imagine if every concerned adult, if every loving parent and grandparent would require good overall nutrition to be satisfied. Imagine if junk was never satisfying, and no matter what nutrients were thrown into a vat of gloop (the food industry equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig), we reliably voted "no" at the checkout counter.

Imagine, in other words, if we -- the food customers -- rallied around a higher standard to serve our collective satisfaction. Could we really stand up to Big Food? Would we be biting off more than we could hope to chew and swallow, or might we really change the food supply?

Whatever the truth about Bolivia and Big Macs, there is evidence on our side. We needed no national policy or legislative reform to fill our supermarkets up with low-fat foods. We simply needed a fascination with low-fat eating to take hold. Big Food built the supply for us not because they were obligated to do so, but simply because they knew we would come. That now-vintage story was replicated more recently at the height of the Atkins' diet craze, and our entry into the era of carb-cutting. Every supermarket in the country offers low-carb foods for the simple reason: People want them. And, of course, this same phenomenon repeats with each new dietary preoccupation that takes hold of us, from organic, to gluten-free, to look out for wheat, to non-GMO, and so on.

Demand does trump supply.

The trouble is that to date we have generally not put this power of ours to good use. We have generally demanded something both silly and prone to exploitation. The food industry has given us just what we asked for, watched us get fatter and sicker, and laughed about it all the way to the bank. But even these misguided expressions of it have proven our latent power. If we change the food to which we are willing to come with cash in hand, they will absolutely change the food they build for us.

With this great power we have comes great responsibility. First, we have the responsibility to get our act together -- to turn "loving parents and grandparents," for instance, into a special interest group -- and exercise this power. The longer we whine about the state of the food supply while propagating it with our demand, the longer we practice hypocrisy and cultivate chronic disease.

Second, we need to get it right this time. One-nutrient-at-a-time approaches to modifying our food demand have given us countless varieties of junk. We have our own misguided demand to thank for the choice among low-fat junk foods, low-carb junk foods, sugar-free junk foods, and various other flavors of ingestible rubbish. I think we all basically know truly nutritious food when we see it, and to the extent we don't, we can make use of validated tools and resources that help us figure it out. It is way past time to insist on food that is not "improved" in one highlighted way while adulterated in six others, but just plain better overall.

Demand does trump supply. We have long seen signs of this latent power. Tales of our friends in Bolivia wagging modern dietary dogma right off their real estate may be fantasy, but they are inspiring just the same. And more importantly, they are feasible. We could choose what we chew; we could change what we choose.

My fast food fantasy is that maybe, some time soon, we will.


Dr. David L. Katz;

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