The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part VII

The shift in identity of an individual changes life's path; the shift in the path a society takes can alter the identity of a community. In more political examples, movements like women's suffrage and civil rights altered the course of history. Economic transformations, such as the industrial revolution, the exodus to urban centers or the current rise of the service sector, change how people perceive themselves and strive to live. These tectonic shifts also shape identity. The coveted skills, enviable careers and collective worries all change with the times.

The world of plentiful food is just such a transformation. It had been a given that the availability of food would ebb and flow; a natural human life involved times of lean and times of abundance. Freed from the urgency to search for and provide food, people have had to adjust to this new world and now spend the extra time and energy miraculously at our disposal trying to cope with the endless bounty found in supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the nation. The industries that helped create this world of food, like them or not, are invaluable to a society that needs to feed millions of people crammed into urban centers, and the concomitant depth and power of the human struggle to manage being around all this food are inescapable, and too ingrained to go away. This is the fate of the modern way of eating; the current goal has to be to find a way to escape the biological trap our society's path has created.
Just as say the flight to urban centers in past decades altered collective identity, the persistent worries about food and weight aren't just nagging personal thoughts. These are also collective obsessions with widespread effects. The scourge of obesity and eating disorders, direct results of the drastic changes in food supply and quality, are public health problems with real economic and political repercussions. The endless search for a fix to the world of plenty has become a national conundrum. The real success of feeding people en masse has led to the creation of a universe of social and medical problems and, to quell the fear directly created by this food climate, a population bent on "healthy eating" as not only an accepted goal of living well, but as the only available solution to the problem. Sanctioned by media, health care and government, millions of people now spend hours of every day focusing on food. Pursuing the identity of a "healthy eater" is considered a useful way to spend your time. What's most concerning isn't the adults who find themselves on this path. If that were the only concern, we all might think this food obsession is just a generational hiccup. It's the kids raised in a world where healthy eating is the identity of choice. The world of plentiful food has created a way of living designed to pass from generation to generation. It's designed to last.
While parents worry about junk food advertising for children or a child's inability to fight the urge for dessert, the overarching risk slides by unnoticed. As a result, the unfathomable has become commonplace: six year olds seeing nutritionists or attending Weight Watcher's, regimented exercise for a child in kindergarten, nine year olds perusing nutritional facts on a package with parents proudly smiling nearby. Parents trying to do the right thing panic when faced with the smallest indicator of a child off-track with food and weight. The adult fixes are so confusing and damaging to a child that the well-meaning parents only create a proem that may not have existed in the first place.
The already unreasonable expectations of adults are palpably dangerous for kids. Although "healthy eating" starts the obsessive cycle for adults and often transforms one's identity into an obsession with food and weight, adults still have past, if distant, experience and memory of a life before. Children inculcated as healthy eaters from the start develop their primary and original self-image around food and weight. The child who appears to absorb the "healthy eating" mantra best reaps parental praise and reward, while the child deemed overweight or recalcitrant creates a self-image actively rebelling against the expected norm. Following the food guidelines at a young age in all likelihood heralds an abstemious eater or perhaps a child at risk for an eating disorder, and the child who rejects the rules runs the risk of binging or obesity. The world has been turned on its head when we encourage the exact behaviors, with all good intentions, which can consume a child's life. The presumed goal, a child free to live a full and useful life, couldn't be farther from the reality.
Even the child who finds the way out of the food and weight obsession is trapped. The ruminative focus becomes so ingrained in a deep sense of personal success and satisfaction, a profound knowledge of who you are, that losing that focus is powerfully unsettling. The world doesn't offer any easy-to-find alternatives, and the goal of being a thin, if not underweight, abstemious eater is obviously the low-hanging fruit. There doesn't appear to be another way of tackling food in this world. Other forms of burgeoning identity and self-worth don't provide the immediate positive feedback and gratification. The child or adolescent, searching for a black-and-white solution to the internal confusion of growing up, takes the simplest thing that's offered. When the adults around them praise the result, the obsessive cycle starts, and the growth of a sense of who you are is easily hijacked. Even the moment of seeing the light, of understanding the meaningless and futility of "healthy eating," is no great sense of relief. There is no other way of life to replace it.
Part VIII will address what we know works with food and the ways to begin to apply it in today's world.


The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part VI

So here's the dilemma. Everyone is searching for the guarantee, the foolproof way to eat in this world and still be able to enjoy food. Theoretically, the edict of healthy eating may seem like the answer, but a few simple rules quickly break down in the reality of today's food choices. It's clear that the concept of healthy eating is an amalgam of very obvious but clearly true statements and an assortment of less true assertions propagated by industry, specifically food and diet industry, and government. Without anywhere else to turn, most people ignore the reality and plug along trying to be "healthy" while stumbling through the string of messy food decisions each day with no clear answers. Faced with a very new world of food that triggers our unavoidable and unwanted evolutionary instincts, people are generally willing to accept any guidance, no matter how ineffective, illogical or unsubstantiated, out of sheer desperation and are constantly vulnerable to exploitation. 

And still, with no viable alternative, relying on healthy eating is the norm. Much as overweight people return to diet after diet for a solution, despite the evidence that almost all diets are ineffective, the even larger group of people searching for a paradigm to explain the best approach to eating in the world of plenty return to healthy eating when all signs point to its failure. There is no evidence that "healthy eating" leads to improved health, easier food choice or any substantial lifestyle change. The larger society continues to show increases in disordered eating, eating disorders and obesity. Discussing healthy food choice with children has no apparent effect on the daily clamoring for more chips or more dessert. Even with the total failure of the concept, the range of experts still have no better answer, and the public blindly clings to the false hope.
"Healthy eating" puts us all at risk, not because this way of eating is harmful, but because we are all unprotected from the danger of the latest fad or brainwashing. Rather than learning what can really change how we function around so much food, the few bits of simple nutrition information leave room for so many misleading or untrue statements and for false advertising to confuse us all. Since there is no other way to understand why eating and food choice are so hard, fact and falsehood go hand in hand. This opens the door to every physician, nutritionist, talk show host and celebrity to be able to sell their own solution to the world of plenty even though no purported solution changes personal behavior around food for long. There is always room for the next magic fix to grab onto its own market share. Endless frustration leaves people looking for new, concrete information to calm the struggle between the innate drive to eat and the practical desire to choose wisely. That drive never diminishes and the internal fight never ceases. What's branded as a lack of willpower is in fact the futility of using brainpower to resist a biological drive aimed at our survival. And the experts, clinicians, regulatory agencies and public figures all encourage "healthy eating," as if it were a choice. People absorb the message yet are unable to adhere to it and bear the burden instead of personal responsibility. The ability to succeed rests on one's willpower, a trait that, when applied to food, you're either born with or you're not. The abstemious eaters, bereft of the joy of food, are the lucky ones who aren't perturbed by the world of plenty but are instead stripped of one of life's main pleasures. Everyone else, who tries so hard to be "healthy eaters," is at risk of becoming mired in the endless struggle between instinct and logic and have no escape from endlessly thinking about food.
Millions of people obsess about food every day, and the repercussions of the enormity of the waste of mental energy runs very deep. The swirling questions range from meal choice to an upcoming dinner out to dessert cravings to the constant battle between "healthy eating" and the forbidden fruit. Obsessing is not a pleasurable activity. Churning a mental debate over and over is exhausting and pointless and, at its worst, inescapable. One common cause for obsessions is a conflict between human instinct and logic.  The mind can get stuck when powerful instincts and emotions don't jibe with logic. Since instinct and emotion are more hard wired into brain function, the innate trumps the rational, much to our dismay. Our rational mind, if too new to override old brain instinct, is still too potent to be shut down, and the end result is chronic rumination. This is the exact scenario created by the juxtaposition of "healthy eating" with the innate drive to eat in the world of plenty.
Anyone can remember the experience of endlessly worrying about something. If that lasts for a day or a week, it becomes an annoyance, a mere blip in time. After a few months, it's easier to lose yourself and start to conflate who you are with the worry, and when it's over, the relief of being yourself again is palpable. What happens when an obsession goes on for years? The sense of yourself before this worry starts to feel as of it were a lifetime ago, if not another person. The process of ruminating about the problem becomes the core of one's identity, so much so that it can be hard to differentiate between you and the obsession. The old self starts to feel like a distant memory. Ironically, solving the problem, the goal from the start, becomes a point of ambivalence. When the issue is finally put to rest, it's too hard to remember what life was like before and too confusing to know how to live anymore. Often, people yearn to go back to the worry again. The nuances and details of such an all-consuming problem become the sum total of your identity. As much as we identify ourselves by the external things in our life, what occupies our mind, not our time, day-in day-out is a large part of how we define ourselves.
Identity is a surprisingly malleable concept. The general consensus is that identity is built through experiences as a child and fixed as an adult, especially once a career or single focus dominates one's life. In reality, identity shifts with the central issue grasping our attention, which can be a constructive task, a long-term preoccupation or more likely a combination of the two. Our sense of ourselves may seem rock solid at times but can evaporate quickly. The illusion of a stable identity seems critical to productivity and happiness, but the reality is that identity is flexible if not fragile, resting on aspects of life that can easily change. Life-altering events, such as being diagnosed with a disease or losing one's job, can turn identity upside-down in a moment. A singular focus on a topic over many years, such as the struggle to maintain "healthy eating" when faced with plentiful food, can more gradually do the same thing. The logical mind's inability to persevere without a chance to outwit our evolutionary response to food results in an obsession that can last for years, if not a lifetime, and one that consumes identity.
With this in mind, "healthy eating" takes on a very different meaning. Its one thing to understand the built-in failure of a concept and how it leaves a large swath of the population vulnerable to ineffective solutions and, even more concerning, disordered eating and obesity. It's another to realize that this same group of people base their identity on their relationship with food. In fact, even the fact that the term "relationship with food" has entered the lexicon reveals how intertwined food obsession and identity are. For many, the relationship with food supplants relationships with people.
On first glance, a life predicated on the basis of food, eating and weight doesn't seem wasteful. A basic fact of human existence, food represents survival and sustenance, culture and tradition, creativity and unity. A life that celebrates the pleasures, and at times the burdens, of food in society may just balance the intellectual and emotional facets of food with the basic concept of what it means to be human. But that's not the identity "healthy eating" propagates. The substance of daily existence becomes a preoccupation with the timing, ingredients and setting of every meal and snack. Inspecting and memorizing the nutritional information of every morsel of food is a daily ritual. Each meal is the central focus of every moment and engenders the most intense emotions of the day: guilt, shame, elation. Every meal at a restaurant leads to hours or days of worry; every holiday feels like an impending catastrophe. The joys of life are slowly taken away and replaced with the obsession with food, weight and healthy eating. Work, family and play all recede into the distance. "Healthy eating" in and of itself is the primary focus, the core of identity, all caused by the innate human reaction to a world of plentiful food.
Part VII next