Any major magazine’s “Ideas Issue” is bound to be counterintuitive, and The Atlantic Monthly has outdone itself with this one: For its July/August cover story, writer David Freedman pens a defense of processed foods and fast food chains—and a scathing critique of pro-“wholesome” figures like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. First up, Freedman takes aim at the idea that unprocessed foods actually help fight the public health crisis of obesity:

Junk food is bad for you because it’s full of fat and problem carbs. But will switching to wholesome foods free us from this scourge?…Even putting aside for a moment the serious questions about whether wholesome foods could be made accessible to the obese public, and whether the obese would be willing to eat them, we have a more immediate stumbling block: many of the foods served up and even glorified by the wholesome-food movement are themselves chock full of fat and problem carbs.

Freedman points out that “healthy” alternatives to, say, the Big Mac offer just as many calories and grams of fat: a burger made with grass-fed beef may be more sustainable or ethical, but it’s definitely not guaranteed to be healthier. Then there’s the question of whether that Big Mac is actually any worse for consumers because it’s processed or has chemical additives:

The health concerns raised about processing itself—rather than the amount of fat and problem carbs in any given dish—are not, by and large, related to weight gain or obesity. That’s important to keep in mind, because obesity is, by an enormous margin, the largest health problem created by what we eat. But even putting that aside, concerns about processed food have been magnified out of all proportion.

Interestingly, Freedman’s piece parallels a similar article published by Bittman in the New York Times Magazine, a publication Freedman explicitly calls out for an elitist emphasis on “wholesome” foods above all else. Bittman’s exploration of “healthy fast food,” however, largely neglects the issue of nutrition and avoids large chains altogether, focusing on smaller, newer fast food ventures that have so far been unable to gain a foothold. Freedman then poses the article’s central question: Why not enlist the help of large, popular chains in offering healthier food to more people?

[pullquote]”Processed food is a key part of our environment, and it needs to be part of the equation,” [researcher Jamy Ard] explains. “If you can reduce fat and calories by only a small amount in a Big Mac, it still won’t be a health food, but it wouldn’t be as bad, and that could have a huge impact on us.”…Fast food became popular because it’s tasty and convenient and cheap. It makes a lot more sense to look for small, beneficial changes in that food than it does to hold out for big changes in what people eat that have no realistic chance of happening.[/pullquote]

Freedman then dips into a lot of interesting food science that essentially adds up to fast food companies being equipped to offer options that are both cheap and taste just as good as their original products. The problem is that such innovation involves heavy processing, which has been so demonized by Pollan and company that it threatens to derail good faith efforts to reduce portion sizes, lower calories, and up nutrients.

The story provides a convincing counterargument to the Whole Foods-happy locavore orthodoxy that’s dominated the healthy-eating conversation for the past half-decade. And if Freedman is right, it also provides a more realistic solution to obesity—one that doesn’t involve giving up McMuffins.

[via The Atlantic]