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.