At one point in time there was a pretty narrow window of what was considered food. Industrial agriculture — and the mass production of food — is only a few hundred years old. The advent of the plethora of processed food products is even younger.

Normal meals just a few hundred years ago contained less ingredients than a single food product contains today. And none of the harmful fats in the form of vegetable oils; none of the chemicals and colorations; and none of the government-subsidized franken-sugars.

We could dive deep into the details, but it’s not important to get this important message across: what is widely considered to be food today wasn’t even imaginable a century ago. 

Today’s grocery stores are 80% food products and 20% food. That’s a safe guestimate. Most of us weren’t alive 100 years ago, so we don’t have first hand experience of walking through markets at that time (markets without Twinkies for instance).

The markets we’re trained to know, love, and understand are today’s markets. They’re the markets we grew up with. They’re the markets that engrained in us what’s possible.

In politics, the Overton Window is the concept that there’s a very narrow range of ideas the public will accept. Carried over to food markets, there used to be a very narrow window of what was considered food. You can take this as far back as the Paleolithic if you want — it’s a sliding scale.

The Overton Window also describes a spectrum where ideas live. On this spectrum, an idea can be considered widely accepted (current policy), to sensible, to radical or even unthinkable.

In food markets a hundred years ago, Twinkies weren’t policy. Neither were processed vegetable and seed oils. Neither were chemical additives and franken-sugars. In simpler terms, there weren’t 500 brands of adulterated ice cream on the frozen food aisle.

The public ended up accepting a few of these food products, there’s no doubt about that. But if you had tried to sell them on the fact that in a hundred years we would be considering these food products as a staple and that real food would be put on the back burner, they would have considered that idea to be unthinkable.

Yet here we are and it’s policy.

So how does the shift occur? Slowly but surely. The psychology behind the Overton Window can be overtly or accidentally manipulated. This isn’t about conspiracy theories, so I’ll let you choose your own reality.

The official spectrum looks something like this: policy > popular > sensible > acceptable > radical > unthinkable.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you have an idea that would be considered radical or unthinkable on the spectrum (grocery stores having 80% cheap food product and 20% real food) and you know the public is highly unlikely to adopt it. What do you do? Do you push that policy as-is and try to move the brick wall of public resistance? Absolutely not.

In politics, the Overton Window is often manipulated by offering the public an unthinkable option and then scaling back to the radical one that simply appears more acceptable now due to the presence of the unthinkable option. Door, meet face. This is the same psychological manipulation used in price anchoring: If you want to sell something at $5000, make a “platinum” option with a few extra superficial features at $7500. Now $5000 seems much more acceptable.

“Oh, that’s too extreme for you? No problem, let’s back off just a little bit to this second option.”

“Okay, that sounds more reasonable.”


You can do that in a split second like they do with pricing or you can do it incrementally over the course of decades, like they’ve done with food: where it comes from, how it’s made, how it’s raised, how it’s grown, how it’s assembled, and how it’s priced.

The bottom line is that an Overton-Window-like concept has occurred and we’ve accepted unthinkable things as food. Public perception has been seriously warped.

We used to have a narrow opinion of what food was and now we have a view with no limits. Instead of shifting public perception in one fell swoop, our focus on real food was slowly dismantled brick by brick, aided greatly by government subsidies and scientific studies filled with shenanigans.

Purposeful or not, it’s hard to argue that Big Agriculture, government, media, and medicine don’t benefit greatly from a public who consumes 80% food products and 20% food. Supply and demand certainly started the process, but forces well beyond the marketplace have taken the ball, run down the court and dunked the shit out of it. They didn’t just score, they shattered the backboard and flipped off the crowd. Rodman style.

Some people — myself included — realize that this manipulation exists and we’re advocating a “back to basics approach.” But we’re meeting heavy resistance: from government, from media, from gigantic dieting companies and food manufacturers, and from people manipulated by mainstream thinking (these are people who believe that the unthinkable is sensible policy).

“Eat what you want, just in moderation” is a statement the manipulated make. They’re still in acceptance of the unthinkable. They’re also the people who are now diagnosing those of us who simply want to go back to basics as having Orthorexia — an eating disorder characterized by an extreme opposition to foods considered unhealthy. And they’re shouting from the roof tops that a whole foods approach is “too restrictive.”

Do you see what happened here? Not too long ago in the context of history, eating real food was policy. Since that time, tens of thousands of fake food products were introduced into the market. We had the luxury of being inundated by them — we ate them as kids and now feed them to our own children (well, not me…) — and now the argument is that the whole foods approach that used to be policy is now “too restrictive,” considered only by individuals suffering from Orthorexia.

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Well played, Big Agriculture, well played. Assist awards and eye winks to government, mainstream media, “scientists,” and modern doctors. What’s the public get out of the deal? More prescriptions, more frustration, and more disease.

So, what’s reasonable to you these days?


  • Cynthia Hill says:

    First of all – thank you for another great “tell it like it is article” and your timing is perfect given the U.S. News b.s. story on best diets! I glady suffer from Orthorexia and always will as what I put in my body is my top priority! Secondly, it is shameful to see articles such as the U.S. News one rating fake food diets above whole unprocessed ones! Putting MediFast above Paleo & even being on the list particularly makes my blood boil as the first ingredient is soy! In a previous life I did the MediFast diet several times (lost a ton of weight – which I gained back almost immediately) and am paying the price to this day. Here is an ingredient list for their chocolate shake: Soy protein isolate, fructose, dextrin, cocoa (processed with alkali), whey protein concentrate, modified food starch, chicory root extract (inulin), soy lecithin, salt, cellulose gum, natural and artificial flavor, acesulfame potassium, corn syrup, xanthan gum, carrageenan, caramel color. Vitamins and Minerals: Potassium chloride, calcium phosphate, magnesium oxide, ascorbic acid, ferrous sulfate, zinc sulfate, vitamin E acetate, niacinamide, calcium pantothenate, manganese sulfate, copper sulfate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamin mononitrate, vitamin A palmitate, chromium chloride, folic acid, biotin, potassium iodide, sodium molybdate, sodium selenite, vitamin K1, vitamin D3, vitamin B12.
    Contains: Soy and milk
    And this is better than whole foods???

  • Betty Bender says:

    It took a while to figure it out, but I have known for some time that most of what’s sold in the grocery store is non-nutritious garbage. Even much of what’s considered ‘healthy’ ‘whole wheat’ ‘whole grain’ ‘natural’.. (the list goes on) adds to the health problems of the people of this country. Then again, isn’t it a conflict of interest for the ‘Food’ and ‘Drug’ Administration to exist as a whole?
    I do my best to shop around the edges of the store (ignoring the bakery and deli, and increasingly the diary sections.) I also shop at stores I trust to be healthier like Trader Joe’s. I am eliminating the things from my diet that cause inflammation. The strange thing about that is that now that I eat a more healthy diet, the reaction to a ‘bad’ food is much more pronounced. I can judge whether or not a food is suitable for my body. My children, all adults, have begun to eat the same way that I do – and are noticing the same results. Better health, and stronger reactions to toxic food products.
    I CAN believe that the FDA and the Medical community have decided to give a name to those of us who choose to shy away from the toxic food products that cause the diseases whose symptoms the pharmaceutical companies would like us to spend a fortune treating. We need to remember that Big Pharma wants us sick. They don’t cure disease, they treat symptoms.. and many of their treatments cause other symptoms that require other drugs.. it’s a vicious cycle and one I’m proud to break free of. Call me what you will… 🙂

  • Patricia says:

    I’ll take “Orthorexic” over lemming any day of the week! Bigger, faster and cheaper…the ways of today’s obese society. No wonder the drug companies and so called “top rated” diet plans are having a fit! What the hell are they going to do when we all decide not to follow their crappy advise and eat what nature intended?

  • kate houlihan says:

    Hm…speaking as someone who saw her younger sister suffer for years from eating disorders — and declared herself “vegan” during that time as a cover to restrict her food intake, this hits home in a big way and I can sort of see where they are going with that. On the same token, I also knew plenty of people at that time who kept a vegan lifestyle and managed to keep all of their food in their stomachs.

    I’m sure there are some well intentioned PhD candidates out there hard at work trying to turn their research (possibly even funded by Big Ag, media or pharma?) into a new condition called “Orthorexia” to turn the mainstream public away from clean eating habits. But let’s face it, there is a huge difference between the athletes who eat 2K+ in clean plant & animal-based calories per day to the people who suffer from a horrible mental condition that compels them to eat <1200 calories/day in…whatever it is they're using as a cover to hide the fact that they're not really eating anything.

  • Danny Grayson says:

    Preface: Don’t know what you consider “real food”

    My issue with this article is how pretentious it is. The use of “real food” & “food products” is pompous. It adds a morality to food that’s not needed. The comic’s first two panels are a great example of this. It creates this idea that one is better because one doesn’t eat what one considers “food products.” Like on the Balanced Bites cast where one of them said “if your yogurt isn’t grass fed, it’s garbage.” This isn’t possible for some people. Some ppl only have beans, leg & thigh quarters, grains, tubers, seed oils, and other energy dense food available. This whole idea of “real food” & “food products” is a privileged, 1st world thought.

    I totally get your point on the “unthinkable.” Price a car at 10k and it won’t sell. Price one next to it at 12k and the 10k one will sell. The 10k is now a “deal” even though the price never changed. Makes perfect sense with objects like cars, house appliances, speakers, ect (not food though). Can’t see how this can be applied to food.

    However, this idea that ppl who follow everything in moderation are manipulated is silly. Huge generalization. Eating Oreos is far from an unthinkable action. These “fake food products” aren’t black or white. There is a huge difference between drinking 4 cans of coke a day and dropping 10g of sugar in one’s coffee daily. Is everyone who eats paleo, vegan, primal, ect ortho? No, that’s silly. Just as silly as saying everyone who does moderation is in “in acceptance of the unthinkable.”

    When I hear casts of parents who refuse to let their kids eat Halloween candy, eat dairy, or make them eat differently at kid parties it bothers me (not saying you do). This idea of placing one’s absolute diet ideals (once again not saying you do) on their children to the point where they can’t participate in sociability aspect of food is a problem. Assigning purity to food can’t do any good. Creating the image of food being either healthy/unhealthy or refusing to eat something because it not “optimal” (it must be grass fed/organic/raw) is orthorexic. The idea of anyone viewing anything in life as black or white worries me.

    (off topic?) This is also apart of this vilification of food. Sugar detox? Why? If one craves sugar eat it. If one binges on it – find out why the binges occur – don’t create a cycle. “oh, no I broke my paleo diet with one slice of cake – now I have to “punish” myself for having human cravings – time for another Whole30!”

    There’s no need to create this rift between crowds (militant v moderation). It’s like ppl who agree a great deal focusing on what they don’t agree with. Like a paleo person dissing a low-carber because they don’t eat tubers. Everyone who listens to these health podcasts/read their blogs (Kresser, you, Wolfe, Moore, ect) agree that excess sugar, seed oils, and refined flour can be harmful to health. But we must always remember that the poison is in the dose.

    Those two paragraphs contradict each other don’t they? On one hand rifts between similar crowds are annoying, but pointing out where areas of improvement can happen is great. The moderation crowd could stop using the word “cheat” (i’m doing something I shouldn’t) as if the food is against morals/identity/way of.

    To answer the question at the end of the article, moderation is reasonable to me. Not worrying a great deal about food feels great. Eating out with friends without having to think about “omg I can’t eat grains/lentils” eases my mind.

    Thank you for reading, and I’ll def start listening to the podcast.

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Danny,

      Some people can’t afford a car. Does that mean I can’t make the argument that driving 600 miles is better than walking 600 miles if you need to be there any time soon?

      Your position is classic appeal to moderation. And while it may have been sensible at one point, it’s not sensible in a culture that’s dying by the truckload of preventable disease and is headed toward being majority obese.

      The rest of your comment is a mischaracterization of what I teach, so I won’t bother.

  • Wenchypoo says:

    If you look back at old photos of grocery stores, you see the meat/fish counter, some general sundries, and that’s about it. Everything else was either self-grown, or bought at farmer’s markets. Enterprising housewives would do mass canning, and sell their excess.

    I’m still waiting for the day when grocery stores devolve into “indoor street markets” because so many of us have turned away from the excess and dangerous packaging, the marketing, and the commoditization of food into food products. I also pity those on SNAP–they’ll be the ones left behind, nutritionally-speaking, unless they learn to radically adapt.

    I lived over in Italy for a time, and the town had a weekly street market (3, actually) set up in different parts of town. One market was devoted to meat and produce, another devoted to new and used clothing and shoes, and the third was like a hardware store–you could buy vanity surrounds for pedestal sinks, mirrors, brooms and mops, artwork, tiles, wooden items, etc. That setup is coming here, but I just don’t know when.

    At these markets, nothing was pre-packaged–not even dried pasta. You bought food that was weighed on a scale, then put into a bag. For sinks and stuff, you brought a wagon with you, or the dealer would have an assistant wheelbarrow or dolly it to your nearby car.

    In the meantime, I suggest everyone all get familiar with the metric system–that’s coming here too, and a kilo of something = 2.2 lbs., so if you now buy a lb. of something, that’ll be 1/2 kilo. Expect the change to happen when our current system deems stuff so expensive, nobody can afford any of it, and the companies get desperate enough to drop down to this level just to stay in business. This is what happened in Europe after the Depression and WWII–they never recovered, they just adapted to an expensive life, and made it seem a little less expensive by changing the money valuation, and changing the way valuation of everything else is measured.

    The grinding poverty got swept under the rug, and forgotten by all except those old enough to remember it.

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