The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?

In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.

The study says that:

Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.

What are ’empty calories’? This Wikipedia article explains:

Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An “empty calorie” has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.

Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.

Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:

It’s a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.

As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the “rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American’s food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)

Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs”. We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)

POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled

Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can’t imagine why.


  1. kural says


    In India until recently the humble person’s grain of choice used to be “ragi” or the red millet, and even coarser grains. Ragi though is a highly nutritious cereal and once one gets used to its earthy taste it is the most fulflling meal you can have. Ragi porridge (kanji) and even steamed ragi cakes (like idlis) are hearty fare. These are vastly better than maida (or dehusked wheat) and polished white rice. But now with the rising income levels ragi is increasingly used to make artisan breads and packaged ready-to-heat-and-eat parathas (bajre ki roti). And it may become too expensive for the poor. When I first came here, I was surprised to find that healthy whole grain food costs much more than refined cereal based food, the opposite of what I am used to in India1

  2. says


    This is a major problem worldwide, that food that is bad for you is increasingly becoming more expensive than that which is bad for you. This is going to become worse as factory farming, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and monoculture farming become more widespread around the world.

  3. says

    Don’t forget that in less wealthy countries, the rich are obese as they have the financial means to over-indulge.

  4. says

    This is going to become worse as factory farming, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and monoculture farming become more widespread around the world.

  5. says

    NICE POST. No doubt corn is always a regular energy supplier. Rich source of carbs. To corn, meant, among other things, to sprinkle with grains of salt, whence the term corned beef. It also meant to concentrate into grain.
    I quit eating oily foods, french fries and all. DOn’t want tummy

  6. says

    Your article seems to correlate with similar information I have been seeing on the health channels, that as a society progress from a hunter gatherer society to agrarian, the society’s average weight -- on average -- tends to increase. No wonder we seek so many weight loss plans that don’t seem to address the root causes of weight gain.

  7. says


    If you know about India there are some places where you get food at the cheapest. I eat outside the home when there isn’t any food at home. Can you believe that the food which we eat is made up of a cheapest oil available in the market which get me pimples in my head.

  8. Jason says

    Mano, thanks for very interesting article on obesity. I had a great opportunity to write an essay on obesity 2 weeks ago. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to find your post online. Nevertheless, thank you.

  9. says

    I think we need to educate more people on the importance of your simple fruits and vegetables. That’s right folks, chips are not a part of your daily vegetables!

  10. Jenny Acai says

    I have never understood why so many people turn to these junk and fast foods when the economic times get tough. Fruits and veggies are the building blocks for your body. A top health food I’ve read about is the acai berry. It has antioxidants, vitamins, omega fatty acids, and other beneficial nutrients.

  11. says

    When food controls life--
    The thought of eating disorders typically conjures up the image of emaciated women obsessed with being thin at any cost. The truth of the matter is that eating disorders are more common than you may think and don’t always involve people starving themselves.

    Even with the recent interest in eating disorders brought to light by the increasing number of super-skinny starlets appearing on red carpets and the covers of magazines, major misconceptions about eating disorders persist. Among those misperceptions are what causes eating disorders, who can be affected and how dangerous an eating disorder can be.

    While unhealthy relationships with food and unrealistic body images seem to be at the heart of eating disorders, the reality is that most are physical manifestations of deeper issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are caused by an amalgamation of behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social issues.
    read more on Eating Disorder

  12. says


    The comments are unmoderated and, for recent entries, should appear almost immediately. If the comment is in response to an old post, say a month or so older, it comes to me for moderation. That is a spam-controlling feature of the server software.

  13. says

    1.Be especially kind to yourself in the first weeks after your baby is born. Your body has gone through huge changes and it’s unrealistic to expect that you can snap back into your old shape straight away. Unrealistic expectations sets you up for failure and disappointment, but you CAN get your figure back if you are patient and take it one step at a time.

    2.Forget drastic dieting and treat your body to healthy nourishing food and gentle exercise to get back in shape. You will naturally lose some weight during the first few weeks as your uterus shrinks. Breast feeding alone will allow you to lose weight at 1lb a week if you eat normally and healthily as it uses up 500 calories a day, but you do need to eat enough so that your milk does not dry up. Plan on losing the remainder at a gentle pace.

    3.Your tummy will look very sad after the birth, flabby and saggy. Don’t worry you can soon get things looking good again. Do all the post-natal exercises and gentle exercise recommended by your health-care professionals during the first 6 weeks to get your tummy back in shape. After that check with them that it is Ok if you want to embark on a more strenuous exercise routine. Once your doctor says its OK to exercise, one of the best ways to retighten your muscles is a simple yoga move. Stand with your feet apart, hands on thighs. Breathe out fully and then pull your tummy muscles in and up as hard as you can, holding for a count of 10. If you do this a few times a day before breakfast you’ll soon see results. Don’t do this during pregnancy.

    4.The first few weeks with your baby are precious and not the time to start injuring yourself by doing too much too soon. Whatever you decide to do, don’t go mad in the first week you’re allowed to exercise normally. Build up gradually as if you’d not exercised before.

    5.If you are not able to get back to the gym or to do whatever activity you used to do now that you have a baby to care for, investigate home-exercise programs and videos you can do while your baby sleeps or organise your partner or friend to watch your baby for a short time while you exercise. You will need to be a bit more resourceful and determined to fit in your exercise but you can find a way if you really want to.

    6.Walking with your baby is always great – you both get fresh air and out of the house and you get fitter while your baby is soothed by the movement of the pram. You could also use a baby carrier to keep your baby close to you while you walk. This is especially soothing for a restless baby. Aim to walk for 30 minutes to an hour each day.

    7.You may find yourself tempted to snack more if you are alone at home with your baby especially if you are used to being out and about at work every day. Make sure you have lots of healthy snacks around such as fruit and avoid buying unhealthy snacks so you are not tempted. You may be better to plan 5 or 6 mini-meals rather than snacking all day AND having your usual lunch and dinner.

    8.Take the time to plan simple meals for the next few days before you go shopping. This will help you avoid the “What’s for dinner”/”Oh no, I haven’t defrosted it?” / “Better send out for pizza again” Syndrome. This is not the time to plan elaborate recipes but try and avoid too much processed junk food because you do have time for a simple omelette, pasta sauce, baked potato or salad

    9.If you start a plan to get in shape and it all feels like too much, simply restart it when you feel up to it – there’s no need to beat yourself up over anything. Most women feel a bit tired and stressed with a new baby so don’t put more pressure on yourself. All in good time. If you feel really down remember and seek help -- post-natal depression is very real and quite common.

    10.Reward yourself. You’ve been through a lot – your body has changed, your hormones are in disarray. Whatever you do that helps towards getting back in shape (a walk, a healthy snack, your tummy exercises or whatever) give yourself a pat on the back. A few moments to yourself can be a great reward if you have someone who will care for your little one for a while.

    Bonus tip: Above all relax into your new life with your baby. You’ll achieve nothing by worrying about your shape. Take time to rest and pamper yourself as much as possible. Sometimes you can feel quite neglected because your baby makes so many demands and this in itself can lead you to eat for comfort. Take care of your own needs. Ask for support from your partner. If you look after yourself by eating healthily and keeping up some gentle exercise you’ll be fine and your weight will naturally rebalance itself over time.

  14. says

    The healthy foods don’t have to be more expensive. I understand that many people say this but it isn’t true. If you don’t feel you can afford the local grocer’s healthy veggies and fruits, then grow them yourself. Health matters! Just think about all the calories you will burn gardening and the wonder organic food you will produce. It’s very rewarding.

  15. Julie says

    Hmm, it is quite interesting that we pay so much to be healthy, but what other choice do we have? No one wants to die right now, so why let ourselves get unhealthy?

    -- Julie, consultant for Free Credit Report

  16. MikeSmith says

    Whatever you decide to do, don’t go mad in the first week you’re allowed to exercise normally. Build up gradually as if you’d not exercised before.Research Paper

  17. says

    Now that the US Legislature is considering putting a tax on Colas and other sugary drinks, perhaps corn-sweetener consumption will decline as a secondary result. That’s my hope, at least.

    Speaking of sweeteners, agave nectar is a readily-available, low-glycemic (comparatively) sugar source that could easily solve this problem.

    I can’t imagine why the food & beverage industries are so insistent on putting the lowest-possible quality sweeteners in their products just to shave a penny or two off the production costs when they can use far superior products that more people (including both diabetics and health-conscious folks) can enjoy.

    Thanks for the great article.

  18. John says

    Forget drastic dieting and treat your body to healthy nourishing food and gentle exercise to get back in shape. You will naturally lose some weight during the first few weeks as your uterus shrinks. Breast feeding alone will allow you to lose weight at 1lb a week if you eat normally and healthily as it uses up 500 calories a day, but you do need to eat enough so that your milk does not dry up. Plan on losing the remainder at a gentle pace. strip that fat