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.