The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part VIII

The creation of the world of plentiful food, from the elimination of famine to the abundance of foods designed for our palate, brought about a major shift in how we live. Despite the evidence, recognition of this fact is not a given. The general consensus reframes the issue as the individual responsibility to eat in a "healthy" way inevitably followed by personal failure. Shifting responsibility from a macro change to an individual lack of willpower conveniently hides the real causes of the underlying public health debacle. In combination with the media-induced drive to be thin, the resulting situation is laughable: live in a world with every treat at your disposal and endless abundance while struggling to be thin. Shockingly, not only do we abide by the consensus--a setup for failure--but we all believe it's absolutely true.

The human body and mind evolved to live in a different world.  The metabolic, gastrointestinal and psychological systems that worked so well through the ages don't work anymore. Self-imposed starvation, through diet or "healthy eating" rules, whet our appetites to gorge on cheap treats cooked up in the food labs. The long term reactions to a new world of food are largely predetermined. Millions of people in first world countries suffer the consequences: obesity, eating disorders, abstemious eaters and "healthy eaters." Endless food restriction, dubbed as willpower, leads to overwhelming hunger followed by hours and hours spent obsessing about every aspect of food and weight, time almost completely wasted and easily predicted by our instinctual response to starvation. It's hard to believe this represents our best solution to the world of plenty. Left without another option, people dig deeper by dieting anew and only fall further into the trap, caught between unnatural abundance and the edict of "healthy eating." Now, with everyone signed on to the only option, with parents eager to pass on this apparently critical information to their children, the mantle for this meaningless life path has already been assumed by the next generation.
In the age of willpower and over-reliance on the human powers of logic, the real solution lies in humility. Desire for power and control permeates modern life. The default expectation is that any problem, whether out in the world, in our relationships or in our bodies, can be solved by rational thought alone. A basic knowledge of the complexity of the human body makes it clear how arrogant it is to think mind trumps biology. The scientific and technological advances may give the illusion of control over everything, including our bodies, but that's done nothing to help us manage food. As much as recent decades only reinforce the divide between human and animal, our response to food and hunger serve to remind us that many key components of being human evolved just like any other mammal. Personal humility combined with respect for how our bodies work will go a long way towards creating a new way to approach food.
"Healthy eating," a theory reliant on the concept of willpower, is nonsensical in an evolutionary context. Any reasonable plan to face the abundance of food must respect the importance of food and hunger to our survival, a humbling concept. Even though humans appear to have thwarted the natural risk of starvation and famine, our bodies still anticipate the worst and are ready at any moment to adapt to dire circumstances. The medical knowledge of the human response to hunger is both widely available and essential to develop a new approach to food in a world of plenty. A few points are notable. Hunger is a critical internal feeling for child and adult to heed. It's the way the body makes us aware of an important problem: we need food. As hunger escalates, the physical and mental preoccupation with food follows. If hunger gets too strong, any sense of fullness when eating is irrelevant, and the body will take in as much food as possible. These experiences point to the fact that the human mechanism to avoid starvation has a powerful, unavoidable backup system. Hunger cannot be ignored without repercussions. Longstanding hunger leads to significant changes in metabolism and focuses mental and emotional energy solely on food. So prolonged starvation triggers more permanent changes to enhance survival. These physical and psychological changes, hard wired into our being, overpower any chance willpower has to be successful. A plan to handle food in today's world must respect our biological evolution, not blatantly ignore it and set us all up for failure.

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