The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part V

It's worth spending a little more time on this exclusive club, those who purport to have willpower and self-control in spades. This group has the current ideal relationship with food, one largely innate, that many people will do almost anything to replicate. Examining them more closely yields knowledge about what is considered the goal of the compulsive dieting and weight loss and what is valued by a society with unlimited food.

People capable of a mostly rational approach to food, and devoid of the base urges to eat, also tend to fit a general personality type. In other words, the ability to resist the cornucopia of food in the modern world appears to come with a set of inborn traits, ones for the moment considered enviable, not an iron will. The traits in question include perfectionism, inflexibility, rigidity and, at times, a tendency towards self-punishment. Not only does this kind of person thrive on delayed gratification but often has limited capacity to enjoy the food, once finally allowed, much at all. Typically, food is a repetitive even monotonous daily chore performed with limited pleasure but instead dependent on mundane ritual. This way of eating most resembles the food as a utility model. Even when offered  every possible delight, no food is a treat. Instead, the abstemious eater, completely uninterested in anything the food industry has to offer, exists outside this basic pleasure of human life. At its worst, the rigidity can lead to disordered eating or even anorexia, but the desperate overeater, after years of unsuccessful dieting, often sees this lifestyle very differently. To them, it's impossible to see abstemious eating as the door to a joyless world or an eating disorder as the horrendous and wrenching prison it is. In fact, many lifelong dieters wish all necessary food intake could come in a daily pill and want to totally eliminate meals from our existence. If the endless diet and concomitant weight loss are sacrosanct, then a life devoid of the pleasures of food isn't miserable. It's the newest ideal, perhaps the current American dream.
To learn more about the abstemious eater, it behooves the curious to ask the obvious: what do they eat? The answer isn't so obvious at all because it's a trick question. No one is going to follow a member of the club around and log their daily food intake. In fact, no one even asks what they eat. It turns out that what they eat is irrelevant; the perception of what they eat is what matters. What stops the actual inquiry is fear either of being shamed in comparison or of becoming hopeless after seeing the impossible, depressing meal plan in it's entirety. Left without any real information, the curious happen upon an answer based largely on perception: what would an extremely knowledgeable--from years of reading diet and nutrition books--dieter presume a pleasure-free eater to eat. Thus, there is no need for the idealized group to flaunt its superiority (or even mention anything about how to eat), for it's accepted without question by society as a whole. No one wonders or even cares about how unpleasant and joyless an abstemious eater's food life might be. No one cares what they actually eat. As is typically the case for an idealized group, perception trumps reality.
The fundamental perception of an abstemious eater's daily food isn't hard to figure out. A few years into chronic dieting and nutrition education, even the most optimistic dieter realizes that there is no magic solution. On reading assorted nutrition guides, from the extreme diets to the practical to the solely educational, the same information surfaces again and again: more vegetables, varied diet, fewer processed foods, whole ingredients, home-made food. The sage advice turns out to be obvious; there is nothing complicated about choosing a nutritious diet. The problem lies in the application of basic knowledge. The deeper drive to eat, especially the tasty morsels produced by the food industry, easily supplants the best intentions, thus the birth of the myth of willpower. Because nutrition education is so ineffective, most newfangled ideas simply tweak the facts enough to create a new, sure-fire, and hopefully best-selling diet. The public's insatiable appetite for an easy fix opens a market for meal plans that either subtly alter the specific amounts of the nutrition building blocks--protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, etc--as the core of success or boldly find a new culprit for failed diets and eliminate it, the dreaded carbs being the current food villain. Even if purely unsubstantiated, any new fad can become popular when nothing works. The only thing the diets have in common is food restriction, necessary for any weight loss. 
Even the most hard working, diligent dieter will forgo the diet fad and failure cycle after a time. The process is so demoralizing that the next step is usually a period of total hopelessness followed by a resurgent desire to truly understand why each diet fails. All signs first point to a lack of willpower, a myth that saves the diet industry from facing its own shortcomings by placing responsibility on the individual. It is much too easy to sidestep the fact that upwards of 95% of diets fail. The next logical step is to return to the perception of an abstemious eater's diet. After a life of education, it's clear that the answer, of course, is "healthy eating."
Ask anyone what healthy eating is and see the looks you'll get. The gist of any response is how can you not know? Isn't it a given for anyone, especially a parent, to know how and what to eat? It's one of the most basic things in life, like sleeping and walking. Like breathing! Hold on, is this a test? Are you asking if I know what healthy eating is? Really you must know what healthy eating means?
Yes, the reactions range from dumbfounded to incredulous to insulted. But what happens if you probe deeper? It turns out that although the most basic, general rules may be close to universal, once you get to specifics, the answers run the gamut. Anyone can list off the basic rules from nutrition guidelines, but they are of little help day-to-day in the real world.  Tackling the real questions is simply overwhelming. Can you eat processed sugar? When and how much? Are snacks ok for adults? For children? What kind of snacks? How much does food really need to be organic? What do you think about all of the "healthy" food labels? Do you look at or tally the nutritional information labels on food? How much carbohydrates or fat or protein is too much, or even too little? Is it necessary to monitor daily salt intake? What to do about dessert? Is having dessert every day ok? What kinds of dessert? Should dessert always lead to guilt? Is dessert always a "bad" food? Are there even good and bad foods? The questions abound and quickly exhaust even the most patient and thoughtful person. If the abstemious eater follows "healthy eating" and the food rules are endless and unanswerable and the so-called experts often support misleading or flat-out erroneous information, then can anyone actually define what healthy eating is? Or is it possible that nobody really knows how to manage the world of plentiful food? Are we all left to fend for ourselves?
Part VI next


The Dangers of "Healthy Eating," Part IV

It wasn't long ago that modern medicine purported that 90% of the brain was unused, a spectacular assertion to conceal our almost complete ignorance of brain function. The rapid rate of research in the past two decades has since shown how much there is to learn but also left us in awe of our own internal computing capacity.

Without a more complex understanding of brain function, computers, ironically, serve as the layperson's most apt and comprehensible analogy for how the brain works. Many people still see computers as more powerful, valuing the brute force of swift computation over the sophistication of the brain's learning, memory and recognition prowess. What is most appealing about a computer is that what you see is what you get. Ask a question and you can easily get an answer. Use an app and the function is clear. By comparison, the vagaries of what actually occurs in our brain remains very hazy.
In truth, incorporating the knowledge of brain function into modern life is a challenge. The unique element of being human is our self-awareness: a topic addressed by philosophers for centuries. It is our blessing and our curse. Forced to face the reality of human limitations, a uniquely human experience, people have endlessly searched for comfort through religion, power or substances, to name a few of the largely ineffective solutions. In our current world, much of the comfort stems from a sense of direction and purpose, or more succinctly self-determination.
It's a modern-day myth that hard work and confidence can lead to success. Underlying this goal is anyone's ability to harness their mind for a single purpose; ultimately, we are in control. The most confusing and perhaps most disconcerting realization is the concept that the majority of our brain functions unconsciously. It is preprogrammed to push onwards and, much like the heart, function completely out of awareness.   That's fine when we are discussing the gastrointestinal system or neurological reflexes, but it's disturbing to many when it concerns problem solving or personal relationships. To think of our brains more like computers means the triumph of self-control and willpower over the unconscious, automatic brain systems that keep us alive and well. Many people feel lost without self-control as the ultimate tool. But that makes the true implication of brain science tough to process. If 90% of our brain power has been in use the whole time, just not within our awareness, then who are we?
The general consensus that individual motivation and conscious decisions should dictate daily life has clear implications in addressing weight and food. In this scenario, willpower is everyone's default excuse for diet failures or eating lapses. In fact, the general credo is that willpower, along with some common-sense knowledge about food, is the only way to manage eating when surrounded by excess. And this commonly held belief is the central building block for all of the marketed schemes to manage eating. Gladly, industry will capitalize on our willingness to accept that diet failures are our own fault! It's too easy to vilify the companies making a profit and not recognize the larger need to believe that the perfect diet or ideal weight management solution is just within our grasp. That's not to say we should blame ourselves, but that the alternative explanation, one that incorporates innate responses to food and the limitations of sheer willpower, remains too much to handle. A more reasonable food plan with moderate results that still demands substantial effort has little appeal. The goal is a quick fix with miraculous results, short-term effort followed by a return to life as we know it. This construct, created by individual desire as much as industry, ensures the repeated failures of any new eating scheme and the continuation of society's obsession with how to eat. We all unwittingly believe in the newest, wholly unproven diet and accept that its failure is always our own fault.
Questioning the willpower hypothesis can infuriate those who have spent their adult life bouncing from diet to diet. After years of obsessing about weight loss and dieting, no one wants to believe that the way we eat and what we weigh is largely predetermined. Who wants to think the endless dieting has all been for nought? These naysayers point to the segment of the population that seems to be able to eat when hungry and stop when full, despite access to plentiful food, and say these people have it all figured out. If they can do it, then anyone can. It's just a matter of self-control.
It's not hard to find a member of this group, especially one who is smug enough to think they have all the answers, that their own relationship with food is the solution to the scourge of obesity. The lack of interest in, at least to most everyone else, typically irresistible foods may very well be a coveted trait today but sure isn't any sign of superior willpower. It's just one of the ways humans are born relating to food. Ask a member of this group what their trick is. Not one person can describe a conscious series of thoughts or actions to explain their formidable restraint. It is apparent that willpower is instead the other end of the spectrum of human reaction to food, a variation of the innate way people eat. The emergence of unlimited foods designed to appeal to our base desires reveals the range of human response, from insatiable appetite to a total lack of interest. There are evolutionary explanations for both: overeating in times of plenty triggers fat storage and protects against famine; and delayed gratification leaves excess food for external food storage for the future. Both biological reactions to times of plenty are beneficial. The fundamental challenge is to recognize how we are all hard-wired to respond to the current food environment. Accepting the fact that we are preprogrammed to eat in a certain way is a very bitter pill to swallow. It's anathema to self-determination, that our brains function independently to dictate how and what we eat; or that the availability and quantity of food sets up many, if not the majority of people, to struggle with food; or that no diet or food elimination is the cure for eating in the modern world. So instead we live in the communal delusion that willpower is the final salvation, self-control is just a state of mind.
Part V soon to follow.


The Dangers of "Healthy Eating," Part III

What is a person faced with an endless supply of food to do? The varied answers to this question have become increasingly important as first world countries buckle under the medical and social problems the world of plenty has produced. It seems so obvious that, with food shortage practically a relic, regular meals and snacks could be such a routine part of our day that food might become taken for granted as a utility, paid and consumed monthly like the electric bill. Some people even dream of a pill taken once in the morning that would provide all the nutrition for an entire day. But our minds and deepest desire to eat just won't comply. No matter the collective belief that overeating has become a public health hazard, for some akin to smoking a few decades ago, even the most clever ad campaign, junk food tax or industry regulation can't override our innate response to all this food. And as obesity, eating disorders and disordered eating wreak havoc with people's lives, society works on an intellectual fix to a deeply embedded, old brain, instinctual problem.

So, in a world overrun by media and overly reliant on the power of our intellect, the average person just can't find a way around the deep desire to eat. In fact, while the messages, whether subtle or overt, around us imply that a solution to eating is always within our grasp, modern life regularly sabotages any real chance of doing so. Alongside the photoshopped magazine covers of impossibly tall, unblemished, emaciated models lie the tantalizing tidbits thrown to all the normal looking people: lose ten pounds in a week!, the best way to avoid those carbs, three tips to the abs of your dreams. But what happens when the reader flooded with the ideal of skinny and easy weight loss looks up from the magazine? The world around them is all food all the time, be it at the office, at home or walking in the mall. Modern life pits the intellectual desire for thinness with the enormous supply of delectable goodies. And it is absolutely clear which drive wins out.
The hard truth is that the game is rigged. Yes, the medical community and public health system both know how personal struggle with food is the first health problem shortening average life span in several generations, but several large, powerful industries rely on both over consumption and chronic dieters to thrive, and they continue to dominate the discussion. The end result is that it's hard to find the motivation of society at large to alter how we eat. The diet industry, self-help books, reality TV and fashion magazines all profit from the unfulfilled desire to lose weight. Although the promise of weight loss abounds, scratch under the surface and it's clear no diet has ever shown any meaningful, large-scale success.
Tackling the impossible task of corralling our impulse to eat has preoccupied many of the brightest minds today. The diet industry floods the market with new options regularly. Despite the reputable data that diets fail over 95% of the time, the weight-obsessed, desperate to seize upon the newest hope, jump on the latest weight-loss bandwagon, lose weight and then promptly gain it back, and more. Many diets now include food products or even food delivery options in order to boost profits. The explosion of books which, with no scientific or medical basis, purport to have discovered the solution to managing hunger and weight, either through altering food choices, elimination of certain food groups or an often fabricated understanding of human nutrition or metabolism, has no end in sight. Not only does a successful theory capture the attention of a public starved for an approach to the world of plenty, but even the medical establishment will accept a popular new theory as one of its own. Similarly, a growing branch of medicine, from internal medicine to mental health to surgery, takes on obesity and weight loss. Not only are the masses of overweight people willing to trust their doctor to solve the diet dilemma quickly and easily, but doctors are more than willing to promise the short-term fix, through temporary, potentially harmful medications or surgery with dubious long-term results.
A public health campaign to educate the public about the reality of a weight loss program--challenging lifestyle modification that provides moderate but long-lasting success--is, at the moment, in no one's interest, and in fact could damage several industries whose profits rely on the general public never learning that the advertised weight loss schemes don't work. Some programs are small enough to escape the powerful lobbying organizations in Washington. The worthy government-sponsored programs--such as the Move Your Body campaign by Michelle Obama and the FDA changes in diet recommendations--and growing Farmer's Market movement are just sideshows to each person's futile struggle to monitor food intake and weight.
After years of frustration, people tend to give up on the great hope of a speedy solution and settle for the daily internal struggle. The growing sense of failure and hopelessness becomes a way of life. They seem to be holding out hope for the missing ingredient the diet industry, self-help books and doctors all say will lead to success: willpower.
Nestled comfortably between pop psychology and the latest weight loss guru manifesto, willpower is everyone's default excuse for diet failures or eating lapses. In fact, the general credo is that willpower, along with some common-sense knowledge about food, is the only way to manage eating when surrounded by excess. And this commonly held belief is the central building block of all of the marketed schemes to manage one's eating. Capitalizing on our society's desire to ascribe the regulation of basic human function, like food and weight, to a purely intellectual and cognitive mechanism ensures the repeated failure of any food management suggestion. We all unwittingly follow by accepting the premise that the failure of a wholly unproven method to work is always a lack of willpower.

Part IV will address willpower.