Taste and Training

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at the development of thought around the subject of food deserts. First, there was what some regarded as a rush to judgment about their great harmfulness. Studies were done and money was spent, to not much avail. Then, there was a second wave, as critics attempted to discredit all the hard-won knowledge about the phenomenon.

Others saw this reassessment as too hasty. Of course, definitions are always a sticking point. Some people are negatively impacted by the 20-minute bus ride to a decent supermarket, especially if they are toting two or three kids along for the trip. But others are devastated by living 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and the transmission on the truck is busted. People face all kinds of situations, and no matter how the food desert experience may be defined by academics or institutions, it can be highly subjective.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama used her energetic influence to bring more healthful stores to disadvantaged neighborhoods. When no dent was made in the nation’s child obesity problem, some Americans took special pleasure in blaming her. What was and is really going on?

Taste preferences? Good luck changing those!

Dr. Pretlow has wondered,

Why do people in poor neighborhoods prefer junk food? Because junk food tastes better, is more comforting, and is a better escape from the plight of living in a poor neighborhood. Do people in poorer neighborhoods thus become addicted to junk food?

But does junk food really taste better? Or is it the only thing we know? A famous experiment showed that a baby monkey will accept milk from a “mother” made of wire or, if given the choice, from a mother made of wire covered with cloth. Maybe this is why we think that only processed food laden with chemicals tastes good. It is our grotesque wire mommy, and we just don’t know any better.

(Incidentally, Harlow’s work mainly proved that when comfort is sought, touch is much preferred over food. Unfortunately, providing hug therapy for compulsive overeaters is far beyond what a government program can or will provide.)

Returning to taste, a reader says:

Way back in the 1970s, I was pretty much a junk food junkie. On a trip to the big city, I ate in my first health food restaurant — that’s what we called them. I think it was run by the Hare Krishnas. The salad dressing was so incredibly delicious, I still dream about it. If I could find that flavor again, I would eat salad three times a day.

Is junk more comforting than nutritionally sound food? Yes and no. Whatever a loving parent feeds a child can turn out to be comfort food, including grilled cheese and peanut butter sandwiches, and even shattered saltine crackers with milk and sugar poured over them. People tend to derive comfort from the foods that were served in their childhood. If more people ate healthful meals when young, no doubt more people would feel comforted by similar meals later on in life.

Sadly, far too many kids have been conditioned to cheeseburgers and fries. Happily, a movement has arisen to counteract that tendency. As just one example, Heather Tirado Gilligan described for Slate.com a radical cooking class in San Francisco. (Radical comes from the Latin word for root.)

Even in the glamorous Bay Area, underpaid and uninsured Americans are prone to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and all the other co-morbidities. The purpose of Soul Food is to demonstrate to low-income women how to preserve and prepare fresh local foods. Gilligan wrote:

Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people… And there are countless local and nonprofit programs, including cooking and nutrition classes (like Soul Food) designed to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the lives of poor people.

This kind of positive action is worth more than the number, or even the types, of food outlets in a given area.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Harlow’s Monkey Experiment — The Bond between Infants and Mothers,” PsychologyNotesHQ.com, 03/10/18
Source: “Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem,” Slate.com, 02/10/14
Photo credit: marneejill on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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