Why We’re Fat, Part 1: The World We Live In
Action is the antidote to despair.
To embrace the solution, you must first understand the problem. Hang on to your love handles; this could be painful.
Forks versus Feet
During the 24-year period between 1976 and 2000 there was more than a doubling of people qualifying as “obese” in the United States; the figure rose from 15 percent to 30.9 percent of the population.1 Part of this was due to an overall decrease in physical activity (feet). A recent study by Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana found that in the past 50 years in the US, occupation-related energy expenditure has decreased by approximately 100 calories per day.2 More important, however, is that caloric intake has gone up (forks). A lot. Between 1970 and 2000 the average American increased daily energy intake by 500 calories.3
That’s a five-to-one ratio of eating more to moving less. These are approximations, of course, but the numbers are damning no matter how you crunch them.
The important question to ask, then, is, why are we moving less and eating more?
No Single Cause
We live in what’s known as an “obesigenic environment,” which is scientist speak for “it makes you fat.” Sedentary jobs, busy schedules and easy access to nutritionally compromised yet calorie-packed “food” we don’t have to cook is what modern life is all about. There is 24/7 access to highly palatable (junk) food that’s hard to resist. Near-constant eating has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s difficult to withstand the call of the cookie, the Krispy Kreme or the cheeseburger. As a result, the pounds pack on, and they don’t come off easily.
But there’s more to it than abundance and inactivity. The truth is, there’s no one cause for people being overweight. Some shout, “It’s all carbs’ fault!” but sorry, that ain’t why we’re fat. The root causes of overweight and obesity are as diverse as the people carrying those extra pounds. It’s only the charlatans who will point out a universal cause and say, “This is why you’re fat.”
So, what are some of these myriad causes? Let’s tackle the environmental issues first.
Working Ourselves to Death
The comedian and philosopher George Carlin once said, “We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life, not life to years.”
He had a point. Tell me if this daily routine sounds at all familiar to you: Get up. Wake kids up. Brush teeth. Wake kids up again. Shower. Wake kids up again, for real this time! Preen. Caffeine. “You’re going to be late for school!” Breakfast? Are you kidding? Commute hell. Cube hell. Food zoo hell. Commute hell again. Help with homework hell. Dial for pizza. Taxi kids to wherever. Kill brain cells with TV. Not tonight, I have a headache. Repeat.
If you’re like many people, work is slowly killing you. Somewhere in the not-too-distant past, we went from working to live to living to work. Hours are long and stress is high. We’re tethered to smartphones, and everyone wants everything yesterday. Saddled with debts, we still desire more stuff, and the way to get it is more work, more money. If you make enough you can also fund a comfortable retirement, but you might not be around to spend it, because the stress, lack of exercise and massive midsection might make your heart go supernova first.
Talk about messed-up priorities.
People working for companies aren’t the only ones who are at risk. As rewarding as homemaking can be, those who stay at home are under more stress than ever before to be super-parents who do everything and do it well. Everyone is overworked and needs a break.
And so it’s not just the advent of highly palatable food permeating society that’s making people fat, but the fact that most of it is also quick and easy. Since 1955 the amount that Americans have spent eating restaurant food (which includes things like ordering pizza and hitting the drive-through) rose from 25 percent of food budgets to 49 percent.4
And eating takeout food is on the upswing. It used to be that when people ate outside the home, it was at least a sit-down meal in a restaurant, but by 2006 more than 60 percent of these restaurant meals were to go, being eaten at home, at the office or in the car.5 And this doesn’t take into consideration the massive growth of easy-to-prepare, out-of-a-box processed junk at the grocery store. What started with Swanson TV dinners back in 1953 has exploded into grocery store freezer aisles filled with products from multiple manufacturers all looking to make a buck by making your life easier.
It’s become easy to get a high-calorie wallop any time of day with no effort. You can order via phone or Internet, detour a few minutes on your way home through a drive-through or take the family to dinner-tainment at a restaurant that makes eating fun.
Time pressure is what makes all this so appealing.
Work lives are harried; we feel as if we don’t have time or energy to put toward planning, shopping for, preparing and cleaning up after proper meals. Instead, you can buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Grease Chunks and dip the skin in the gravy while watching some mindless TV. The kids aren’t going to complain. They’ll say, “KFC! Yay!” You’ll be a hero. It didn’t cost too much more than preparing a meal yourself, you didn’t have to shop for groceries or spend time cooking, and cleanup involves cramming stuff into the bucket and throwing the whole lot in the garbage. Cleaning out your arteries is the only hard part.
And don’t forget the snacking culture that comes with the modern-day working life. Meetings have doughnuts and cookies, people bring chocolates into the office, and rarely do we pass up an opportunity to eat. Tasty food is always happening, and we partake readily because we’re so stressed out and overworked that we need an easy source of pleasure.
And so our culture has changed from one that valued food as fuel to being one that thinks about food as pleasure.
Time to Rebel
It’s time to rebel. In order to live a happy, healthy and hopefully long life, you must find a way to embrace working to live rather than living to work. And this applies to any kind of work. There are times the bathroom needs cleaning and the lawn needs mowing and countless other items need to be checked off the endless to-do list. But I’ll often de-prioritize these tasks in favor of a bike ride and feel better for it. I’ll be happier, even though my toilet doesn’t smell like a rose garden.
And here’s an important fact to keep your personal rebellion on track: working beyond 40 hours a week is shown to cause an overall drop in productivity. What this means is that you can actually get more done in 40 hours than you can in 60.6
Work less, live more. Sound easy? This is anything but easy, which is why (as with everything) we advise a slow and steady approach to changing your lifestyle. You shouldn’t just quit your job and go live on a commune with a bunch of deodorant-optional hippies. However, there are ways you can gradually decrease the time you’re run ragged with an endless pile of work (any kind of work), which will, in turn, decrease your overall stress and make you better able to buy your food from the grocery store and prepare it yourself (as well as find time to exercise).
Once upon a time, I had a choice to make. I had the opportunity to make a good deal more money than I earn right now. The catch? A life-sucking career path. I talked it over with my wife, who was pushing for the “screw that life” option, and I said screw that life. She did too. She could have signed on for crazy hours in her own career, but she chose not to. We’d started a family and wanted to be around to be parents—healthy parents—and have some fun with life.
Maybe our approach can work for you. Maybe you can focus less on expensive toys and more on fun outside. Maybe you can lower your standards, stop trying to keep up with the Joneses and work fewer hours. Just as with weight loss, it won’t happen quickly or easily, but maybe you’ll find a way to prioritize health. We’ll share more details on how to make this happen in Stage II, Prepare.
All Stressed Out and Nothing to Eat
So, convenient food that someone else cooks alleviates some of the pressure of a busy, often-chaotic life. Okay. But what about using highly palatable food to alleviate stress? The so-called emotional eating?
As already examined, work contributes to high stress levels, but it goes beyond an overbearing boss, malicious co-workers and semi-literate clients.
It’s no surprise that emotional trauma can lead to a search for comfort. For some, that comfort comes in the form of drugs, for others it’s alcohol. Some seek solace in self-destructive sexual behaviors, and some choose food to fill the void created by negative life experiences. These experiences can be from childhood, the more recent past or just from getting yelled at by your boss at your 10:00 a.m. “team” meeting.
And sometimes emotional eating isn’t caused by trauma at all; it’s just a result of the world you grew up in.
“When I was upset as a child my mother would start making a chocolate cake that I called the ‘crisis cake,’” television reporter Leeza Gibbons told me. “It was the process of making the cake with my mother that was very therapeutic. I’d sit on the counter and we’d make it together and talk about whatever was bothering me, and by the time the cake was ready my issue was resolved. The problem was, we still ate the cake.”
“If you were upset, Mom would make food,” Jen McKinnon, a 33-year-old mother of four in Calgary, told me. “Or if you were celebrating, it was about food too. Everything growing up was about food.” It took until adulthood for McKinnon to break with this conditioning. For her, exercise was the key component in doing so.
Love and attention are great ways to deal with stress, but food doesn’t need to be part of the equation. In Gibbons’s example, she could have had all the benefits of Mom Therapy during a walk or a knitting session.
But Gibbons and McKinnon are hardly alone. Stress is on the rise worldwide. In Britain, this is evidenced by the record profits being hauled in by producers of tasty snacks. They’ve seen a massive annual increase in sales of premium treats (mostly chocolate). Regardless of cost or health consequences, people reported that gratifying their taste buds was a priority; they considered it “me time.”7
In 1991, Harvard University psychologists determined that people who binge eat are “motivated by a desire to escape from self-awareness.” Such people are often sensitive to the perceived demands of others and have unflattering views of themselves. This emotional distress, which can include anxiety and depression, causes them to focus on the immediate gratification obtained via food to temporarily escape from negative thoughts.8
“People’s stress is increasing,” says Leigh Gibson, a professor of biopsychology at the University of Roehampton in London. “Time seems to be a much harder commodity to have enough of these days. I fear that technology has contributed to this.” Then we half-joked over how we were stressed about our repeated email pings during our conversation. We felt the compulsion to check those emails.
Tell Me about Your Childhood
Wendy Williams is a syndicated talk-show host with four million viewers daily. Successful, right? But being ridiculed as the overweight one in the family once drove her into a vicious circle of comfort eating, as well as other destructive behaviors like bingeing and purging, taking diets pills and downing mega-doses of laxatives.
“My mother would bring cookies home for my brother and I’d bribe him to give me some of them,” Wendy told me. “Once I got my driver’s license I could go to McDonald’s and eat a couple of McRibs and then go home for dinner and act like it never happened.”
I’m familiar with the impulse. Growing up I was both unathletic and weird, so I didn’t have many friends. My weekends comprised shoveling in junk food like a crocodile with a mouthful of wildebeest, rotting my brain with TV and dreading Monday. This habit of eating crap continued well into my 20s, when I discovered exercise (prompted by seeing what I now use as a “before” picture). Exercise was the catalyst for changing my diet.
But I still struggle. I know that after a rough day I’ll hit the liquor store instead of the bike path. It takes mental gymnastics to think my way toward the right decision and resist ordering pizza or scarfing down a box of chocolate chip cookies because I don’t feel like cooking. I don’t always succeed.
“By eating sweet foods you’re able to activate a number of brain systems that relieve stress and improve mood,” Gibson told me. “You can demonstrate that it improves tolerance for pain, for example.” The feelings are immediate, but transient, lasting only a few minutes, he said. And what’s worse, you may experience guilt afterward for having eaten junk food, which wipes out the uplifting effects even more quickly.
Who Is at Risk?
“There is substantial evidence that women are more likely to express comfort eating than men,” Gibson said. “Women are also more likely to suffer depression than men.”
He spoke of a recent study out of San Diego showing that people with higher depression scores had higher chocolate intakes. The connection was more apparent in women. “It was a very strong relationship,” he said. “Clearly there is something about being depressed that drives wanting chocolate.” It’s not curing the depression, though.
And just being poor at dealing with stress puts you at risk as well. “Emotional eaters are not as good at coping with stress,” says Gibson. To a certain extent, the more stressed or depressed you are, the more likely you are to seek solace from highly palatable food.
For Wendy Williams, it took the birth of her son 12 years ago to get her to reevaluate her life and become happy with being a big woman. Now she exercises and focuses on clean eating, but she still enjoys indulgences in a healthy way.
I spoke to her the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York. She was having a “natural-disaster binge day,” sharing tasty treats with her family out of the fridge and freezer in case they lost power and things began to spoil.
“We’ve got cookie dough in the freezer,” she told me. “We can’t let that go bad!”
Food can still be a source of enjoyment. You can use it to celebrate or even make light of a bad situation. But you’ve got to look at how often these things are happening. You’ve got to ask if you’re eating feelings.
The Food Environment
That covers work and stress. Now you know how time pressure (work) and blood pressure (stress) conspire to make us reach for the nearest convenience food. This statement is probably going to result in hate mail, but I put some of the blame for our current addiction to convenience food on men. I can do that because I am one—one who cooks.
Meal Preparation and Misandry
See, women used to stay home and do the grocery shopping and prepare the meals. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, they entered the workforce in droves and men didn’t pick up the slack on the home front. After a day of work it was still somehow the woman’s job to take care of housework and meal preparation. With men not doing their share, women looked for a way to ease the burden, and capitalism came to the “rescue.” You know, TV dinners, pizza delivery, drive-through windows open 24 hours a day …
“There are many more high-calorie foods available now,” says Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist in the fields of diet and addiction at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “They’re easy and convenient. There is also the palatability factor. We’ve seen that foods have become more complicated. The ingredients used contain lots of added fats and sugars, which improve taste, but also brings along lots of calories, which are empty calories. They have little to no nutritional value.”
Earlier in this chapter I pointed out that the percentage of American food dollars spent eating out doubled in the past half-century. An absence of grocery shopping and meal preparation has become culturally ingrained in North America. Cooking is a lost art, and the food that other people make for you has too many calories in it, tastes far too good, and the portions are way too big.
Built to Consume
“We have a society built around consumption.”
My friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert in Ottawa, said that to me. “We don’t see it any more clearly than when it comes to food. There is nowhere people can go that junk food is not provided.”
Welcome to the modern-day obesigenic environment, where we’ve gone from scarcity to plenty. Don’t get me wrong; plenty is awesome. Beats the hell out of starving to death. But things are out of control. It’s more capitalism run amok.
Capitalism, by the way, is also awesome. (Tell your friends to buy this book.) However, there are lines that can be crossed, and some food company executives have gone all Darth Vader on us.
I’m not going to get into some libertarian versus socialist argument about what should or should not be done to rein in food corporations. Plenty of others better qualified than I have debated this subject in many different forums. I’m just going to report on how things are so you know what you’re up against and can plan accordingly how to navigate your way through this environment in as healthy a manner as possible. We can bitch and moan about how wrong it all is, but the fact is that things aren’t going to change soon, so it’s your job to understand the situation and take appropriate action to look after your own health and the health of those you care for.
The Former Big-Food Executive
“Food companies are not focused on making healthy food, they are focused on making profits,” said Bruce Bradley, who has held senior marketing positions with companies such as General Mills, Pillsbury and Nabisco. “They want you to eat more. They make money by selling more food.”
I suppose that makes sense. It’s how they do it that’s sinister.
“The way they get us to buy more food is by making it irresistible,” Bradley told me. They use lots of sugar, fat and salt to get you eating more. As you’ll discover in chapter 2, that’s bad.
And a lot of the time, they’ll pretend these products are healthy by using words like “whole grains,” Bradley said, but they are still full of unhealthy ingredients. “When you’re making processed foods you use ingredients that allow a product to stay on the shelf for a year or two and still taste good.”
I think I just lost my appetite.
Protecting Themselves with Profits
“Government lobbying is one of the biggest things the food industry does to protect and grow its profits,” Bradley said. “It’s about setting the rules of the game as loose as possible.”
Anyone with a business degree knows that the goal of any corporation is to maximize shareholder value. They don’t care about you unless caring about you somehow makes them more money. And in most cases it’s not caring about you that increases profits. And so the industry lobbies those who should protect us to keep regulations lax.
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. I don’t believe the moon landings were faked, or that aliens abduct people out of trailer parks and probe them, or that the Kardashian clan is the result of an unholy union between the Loch Ness Monster and a rabid sasquatch. Actually, I’m on the fence about that last one.
Although I’m a skeptic, I accept that this is the reality of our profit-driven economy, and in weight loss territory it’s your enemy. To live healthfully in this day and age, you need to learn how to navigate the influence of food corporations and restaurants because the government isn’t going to do it for you.
Where I live, Health Canada is the “federal department responsible for helping Canadians maintain and improve their health.”9 Several years ago, Dr. Freedhoff was involved in consultations with Health Canada on the development of the new food guide. He asserts that the department is not interested in anything that makes Canadians more aware of caloric intake.
“I think it’s insane that the food guide provides zero guidance on calories,” he told me. “We’ve had a number of bills presented to government to put calories on restaurant menus, and they always get struck down. I know that the food industry has opposed calorie labeling. They ultimately oppose anything that affects sales.”
The situation is no different in the United States. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) is funded by myriad food companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kellogg’s,10 and the National Restaurant Association is a strategic partner to promote the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPlate” (which replaced the “food pyramid” in 2011). As a reminder, restaurants, like food corporations, are also vested in repeat business, which means making food taste great, which translates to “irresistible and high in calories.” Having an association whose raison d’être is to promote the interests of restaurants partner with the USDA on guidelines for how Americans should eat is ludicrous. “We are restaurants’ champion” is right there on the About Us page of the NRA website.11 Oh, wait. Not that NRA. This NRA’s ammunition is shaped more like cheese sticks.
Can open. Worms everywhere.
The dining-out NRA has four areas that they focus on for their members, and the first one is about profitability. The fourth one mentions social responsibility, but they’re talking about environmental sustainability and charity work, not doing what’s right for the health of the nation’s citizens. There’s a mention of increasing consumer awareness about nutritional information, but this is because they’re interested in “building and sustaining positive public opinion and a favorable political environment.”12 And so they flog MyPlate. You scratch my back …
And, of course, right below the public opinion/political environment part they get into “helping grow revenues” and “increase profitability …”
Too bad that government agriculture subsidies aren’t in line with supporting what’s on MyPlate. A 2012 release from the US Public Interest Research Group determined that government subsidization of junk-food additives pay for 21 Twinkies per taxpayer per year, but those same taxpayers only get half an apple paid for.13 If you want apples, you must pay for them yourself, but here, have some junk food.
According to Bruce Bradley, consumers don’t stand a chance of knowing what’s in their food. All the government lobbying, misinformation and backroom collaboration make it difficult to reach a sound judgment about what to eat.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface.
The Broader Impact
Charlene Elliot is an associate professor of food marketing at the University of Calgary. She explained how the reach of food companies with child-centric products is growing. It used to be limited to the cereal aisle, but now there is a grocery-store-wide heap of food about as “real” as Milli Vanilli.
The focus is on artificiality. “It’s shaped like bugs, stars and princesses,” Elliot said. “It glows in the dark. You can tattoo your tongue with a fruit roll-up. Hannah Montana’s face is right there on your waffles.” It’s all about upping the fun factor of food. Unfortunately, “there’s a direct link between eating for fun, sport or entertainment and obesity,” Elliot said.
And it doesn’t stop there. “The food industry has come up with a line of ‘better for you’ products,” she continued. “We did an analysis comparing them with the regular products, and while they were somewhat better for you, they were certainly not good for you.” That’s a distinction worth paying attention to. This “nutritionism” reduces food to its component parts, where marshmallow pebbles are “healthy” because they have vitamin D added. A protein bar is just another kind of chocolate bar, but it’s got protein, so it must be awesome, right? Cover a granola bar in chocolate and caramel goo and the granola is still supposed to make it a healthy choice.
I’ll Take That Sugar and Fat to Go, Please
Elliot goes on to explain that there’s been a big move toward portable food. “Snack sizes” and “to go” items are heavily marketed these days. It’s as though the food companies are telling us that no matter where we go, we must have conveniently packaged food to take with us. Clearly, we shouldn’t be allowed to stop eating for more than a few minutes at a time.
Gee … bananas, oranges and apples aren’t portable at all. You need some sugar-fat concoction in a plastic package instead.
I’m starting to think auto manufacturers are in on it. My family has a Toyota minivan. It seats seven, but it has 17 cup holders! That’s more than two and a half cup holders per passenger. Is Toyota expecting me to host a frat party in there?
And let’s not even get started on the whole topic of who gets to decide what a “serving size” is. Grab a to-go bag of potato chips in the impulse aisle at the grocery store checkout, and it will say a serving is about 150 calories. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Not until you do the math and note that there are two or three of those servings in that little bag, and you were fully intending to eat that whole thing. If you’re not paying close attention, it’s easier to consume far more calories than you’d intended. And the food companies know that. The serving size list in the nutritional information is not a reflection of how much the typical consumer eats. Not even close.
In North America, we love a bargain.
“There is a ‘good deal’ mentality,” said Lisa Young, a registered dietitian, adjunct professor at New York University and an expert in portion sizes. “People will absolutely go to restaurants with larger portion sizes. We think that we need Godzilla portions to be satiated.”
We also have a clean plate mentality. “Even if you don’t clean your plate, you’re still eating a lot. There’s also the doggie bag mentality.” If you resist temptation and only eat half your meal, the rest of that high-calorie dinner is going to get eaten at some point or another.
Young explains that restaurant food has high caloric density, and when it’s combined with the large portion sizes, the total amount of calories in the typical restaurant meal is massive. Remember, half of American food dollars are spent eating out. It’s a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
We can thank the food industry’s competitive environment for some of this, says Young. Those larger portion sizes “allow them to charge more,” she says. “[A restaurant] can add five cents’ worth of food and charge 25 cents more for it.” That’s a good profit margin, and, as Bruce Bradley said, the food business is all about profit.
So just how much larger are those portions? According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1950 restaurant meals have increased by a shocking 400 percent! Seven-ounce sodas became 42 ounces. Four-ounce burgers transformed into 12 ounces. Two-and-a-half ounce orders of fries grew to almost seven ounces.14
This offers some explanation about why we’re so much heavier now than we were then.
Designed to Be Irresistible?
During my chat with Bruce Bradley, I asked him if food companies purposely try to make food irresistible.
“It’s not so direct,” he said. “There is no evil backroom meeting. It’s more of a perspective where you start drinking the Kool-Aid.” He explained that it’s about making delicious food and seeing if people come back and eat more. “When you measure it like that it seems innocent, but in the big picture it’s more nefarious. The impact adds up over many products.”
It seems I’m not the only one wondering about this issue. In 2005 reporters from the Chicago Tribune did a multi-piece exposé of Kraft’s efforts to boost sales of products like the Oreo cookie. This is from the article: “Kraft said it does not conduct research ‘aimed at creating consumer dependency upon any of our products.’ At the same time, internal memos show the company has a history of sharing brain-research expertise with scientists from its corporate sibling, cigarette-maker Philip Morris.”15
Wait a minute. Kraft shared brain-research expertise with a cigarette company?
The piece reported that they shared government lobbyists too.
A 2006 follow-up piece, also in the Chicago Tribune, reported that “Kraft and Philip Morris scientists traded ideas for studying the fine details of how the brain processes tastes and smells. A 1997 planning memo proposed investing in ‘neuroimaging,’ or brain scans, and research on sensory neuroreceptors, which are sites on brain cells that process smells and tastes.”16
The article explained that at the time, both Philip Morris and Kraft were under the same parent company, the Altria Group. Miller Brewing was part of the same family, and a 1998 memo suggested that the three companies should collaborate on how to engineer products that would influence a customer’s mood or sense of fullness.17
Purveyors of booze, smokes and Oreos working together to raise profits via mutually beneficial brain research. Right about now you should be making a reference to sacramental excrement.
Is Food Addictive?
Food can be compelling as hell, but addictive? Not according to a 2012 study in Nature Reviews. The authors concluded that although highly palatable food may have addictive-like properties, it does not meet all the criteria of an addictive substance. “The vast majority of overweight individuals have not shown a convincing behavioral or neurobiological profile that resembles addiction,” the authors wrote.18
Despite efforts by some to have food addiction included, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) did not classify “food” as an addiction. According to Nicole Avena, even though highly palatable food affects the same brain mechanisms that addictive drugs do, there is not enough evidence to warrant a full psychiatric diagnosis for food addiction. “There are a lot of differences between food and drugs,” she said.
“It’s a matter of degree and vulnerability,” said Carolyn Davis, a professor at York University in Toronto specializing in the psychobiology of obesity. “Regular drinkers aren’t necessarily addicts; they aren’t dependent. When it comes to food, I think it’s a small population that is truly addicted.” Davis said she was struggling to separate food addiction from being an extreme form of binge-eating disorder, which is in the DSM. “‘Food addiction’ isn’t a good term,” she said.
Eating Outside the Box
Are food corporations evil?
After reading this chapter, do you now imagine Satan sitting at his desk down in Hell shuffling papers as he reads about the despicable deeds of some food company executives, and wondering how to assign the appropriate level of damnation when they show up on his infernal doorstep? “What’s the right kind of eternal torment for the guy who said marshmallow pebbles are healthy?” he might ask himself. “How far do I stick my pitchfork up the keester of the one who wanted to make cookies as addictive as cigarettes?”
Evil or not is a question for moral philosophers. I will, however, point out that consumers helped create the situation. It’s supply and demand. The food companies are, to a large degree, giving us want we want. Companies that focus on what we need to sustain health don’t always last long, because, as we’ve established, most humans are driven by a desire for pleasure, not health, when it comes to eating.
Morality aside, I’m here to tell you to avoid their wares.
In my interview with Leigh Gibson, he compared the current food environment to an arms race: food corporations are battling over your money, and they’re investing in research and development to create the best weapons for blowing away your taste buds. So how do you find peace in this cold cereal war? How do you navigate the obesigenic environment to thrive, be healthy and lean? Answer: you don’t.
I mean, you don’t navigate it. You reject it. Most of the time you just have to stay away.
Freedhoff, Elliot, Avena and Bradley all agree: the trick is just not to eat as many processed foods. You can’t believe the marketing and health claims that the food industry wants you to swallow (as much as they want you to swallow their food products). They’re trying to get you to believe that a wide variety of junk food is a healthy choice. It’s not healthy. Don’t believe them.
So understand that junk food isn’t healthy, and armed with that knowledge do your best to make it an occasional indulgence instead of a staple. Plan indulgences for when you want them, and pick something that you’ll enjoy to treat yourself. Don’t fall for the health-washing.
Yes, you can still eat junk food sometimes. It’s a treat, and we all deserve occasional decadence. The message here is to make you realize the need to live by that word “occasional.”
“Stick with the unprocessed fare,” Charlene Elliot says. “The idea of fun with food is not healthy.”
“I don’t think these foods should be outlawed,” Bruce Bradley adds. “But they shouldn’t be disguised as health foods.”
Even though she has a book that helps people control portions and that offers advice for limiting caloric intake while eating out, Lisa Young admits the safest bet is to stay home. “At home you’re in control of the food you’re eating, but in a restaurant you really have no control over what’s being served in terms of calories.”
If you want to be successful at sustained weight loss, you must take control of your food preparation. It doesn’t need to be complicated or fancy, but meals made at home using fresh ingredients are the only solution.
The End of Overeating
If you want to delve further into the mysteries of the food industry, I (partially) recommend Dr. David Kessler’s The End of Overeating. I write “partially” because Kessler’s theory of “Food Rehab” is wrong for recommending a zero tolerance eating strategy (more on this in chapter 9), but the book does offer good information on the massive amount of calories packed into foods in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Specifically, there are useful explanations about how extra calories are piled into restaurant food to make it taste extra yummy. Read it, and you’ll understand why we recommend that you go back to those 1955 levels of food dollars spent on eating out.
If you read Dr. Kessler’s book, you may never eat at Chili’s again.
- Katherine Flegel et al., “Prevalence and Trends in Obesity among U.S Adults, 1999–2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288, no. 14 (October 9, 2002): 1723–27.
- Tim Church et al., “Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity,” PLoS ONE 6, no. 5, epub (May 25, 2011).
- Boyd Swinburn et al., “Increased Food Energy Supply Is More Than Sufficient to Explain the US Epidemic of Obesity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90, no. 6 (September 2009): 1453–56.
- Jeanine Stein, “Americans May Be Running Up the Calorie Count When Dining Out,” Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2010.
- Bruce Horovitz, “At Restaurants, Takeout Takes Off,” USA Today, June 13, 2007.
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