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

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