Just walk through any main street, from the small country town to the big city, and it is evident that we have much, much more food than we could ever consume. The number of fast food outlets, convenience stores and supermarkets seems unlimited. The edible food waste of the First world could feed most, if not all, of the world's starving people.
But the larger realities don't change how each individual, still charged with feeding oneself, thinks about food. The now mundane choice, and for some the burden, of what to have for lunch among the wide options would have been a dream come true for humans through the ages. It is as if we have all become the wealthiest aristocrat with more food than we could ever consume, with every possible treat at our disposal. Yet this purported boondoggle turned out to be much more problematic than anyone could have guessed. Rather than creating a utopia, the world of plentiful food has left millions of people reeling without the ability to handle a seemingly basic fact of life, how to eat.
We are a species designed to live in a land with the natural ebb and flow of feast and famine, not in food heaven. A basic fact of human life for almost our entire existence, the worry of going hungry isn't relevant for an astounding number of people in modern life. The preponderance of food tempting our palate at every turn has completely perplexed our internal ability to regulate hunger and meals. Humans have been engineered to outlast famine and drought but have no clue what to do with an endless surplus. The newfangled coping mechanisms--ranging from arbitrary food rules to diets and, in more extreme cases, from eating disorders to Bariatric surgery--only highlight the futility of trying to outwit our fundamental instinct to eat to survive. But it is the least controversial and most widely accepted solution that confuses us the most. The next series of posts will address the effects of this insidious cultural innovation: the concept of "healthy eating."
In order to understand what's so ineffective about an apparent truism, it helps to start with the current fascination with the human brain. The increasing knowledge about human's higher order functioning, such as consciousness and planning, mental constructs unique to people, has seeped into the mainstream. The unfortunate result is the expectation that people can think and reason their way out of any situation. When it comes to food though, we have evolved from the same genetic line as apes and other mammals so our most base instincts apply.
Humans, like all animals, value survival of the species above all else. Enduring times of famine and drought was and still remains essential. Just as bears hibernate or squirrels store acorns for the winter months, people developed evolutionary adaptations, mainly an adjustable human metabolism and hunger drive, to weather more challenging circumstances. And that ability to survive, despite the creation of a world of plenty, trumps any intellectual means to manage food. Put simply, when it comes to food, instinct overrides rational strategy. It is instructive to look at the biological reaction to times of need and times of plenty. An often used but misunderstood concept, metabolism, the utilization and dispensation of energy throughout the body, is the central tool to adjust to the ups and downs of nature.
A withering food supply triggers a cascade of physical changes: slowed non-essential body function, more efficient use of energy, steady breakdown of the body's energy stores and any extra food intake going directly to temporary storage. The swift transition in metabolism when times became lean is a key component to our longevity, otherwise humans would have become extinct many ages ago. The ability to survive famine is a trait deeply embedded in our genetic make-up. In other words, our bodies are built to survive starvation.
The same cannot be said about times of plentiful food. Those periods were, from an evolutionary perspective, mere blips in the calendar. The boom of a large food supply would never threaten humans with extinction so any adaptations are short-lived and limited in scope. In fact, these brief periods of plenty were, if anything, used to protect against the inevitable hungry times in the near future. Consequently, these were times of brief gorges while those more prone to restraint encouraged the tribe to consider external food storage, say for the upcoming winter, rather than rely solely on humans' internal ability to store energy.
After an extended period of overeating, the body will work hard to overcome the excess. Although the metabolic changes are the opposite of the starvation response, sped up metabolism and increased energy usage, the process is much less robust, and the body is willing to give up quickly and just store the energy as fat, fully expecting to need the backup shortly.
The flexibility of human metabolism is an evolutionary adaptation, one that conferred longevity to individuals to withstand food shortages and thereby helped ensure the species' continued existence. In a relatively stable environment, survival of the individual depended on a combination of luck and beneficial genetic traits, but survival of a people relied on the traits alone. Only a catastrophic event could throw a species into instant turmoil. Natural disaster, a new, lethal disease or a more global phenomenon like an ice age might upend the order of daily existence. In those moments, a random genetic advantage, rather than a long-tested one, determined an individual's and even a species' fate. These monumental events were, in the past, always acts of nature. Never before have people been able to drastically change the environment enough to create our own cataclysm that directly challenges our built-in survival mechanisms. The unimaginable changes in food production and supply in recent decades has done exactly that. The world of feast and famine, deluge and drought no longer exists in the first world. Now, as if by a miracle of fate, we all live in a perpetual world of plenty. But our current good fortune is no stroke of luck at all; it's simply an advancement of civilization.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, human capacity and ingenuity have tackled one impossible dream after another: electricity, transportation, even space travel. One less celebrated triumph is in the agriculture and food industry. The impossible challenge was to feed an ever-increasing number of people. The explosion of the human population--recently surpassing seven billion and with no indication of slowing down--especially in the growing urban centers necessitated a grand revision of food production and distribution, at least in the prosperous first world countries. Agribusiness, large food conglomerates and national supermarket chains made feeding the growing population possible, and then some. America produces almost twice the needed per capita amount of food, measured in calories, the country needs. The application of efficient farming techniques, food manufacturing--largely from creative uses of corn--and innovation in food transport is a marvel of the past half-century. These industries, currently vilified for their complete disregard of the public health effects of their products, began with a more progressive motive, to supply affordable food to the masses, and have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. What is now commonplace in a supermarket--Chilean grapes, choice of any baked good and canned food that could feed a small army--was as unlikely as the fantasy world of 1984 only a few generations ago. Although the national debate over obesity has taken center stage, that's not a reason to ignore another achievement of industrialization.
Depressingly, the people enduring regular starvation--from sub-Saharan Africa to North Korea to those suffering from anorexia nervosa--have evolution on their side, not those who live in the land of plenty. The body has built-in mechanisms to survive long stretches with little food. Much as the electrical conduction system of the heart, the neural "wires" that produce each heartbeat, has several backup systems when the front line breaks down, digestion, metabolism and energy production can run on emergency as well. The eternally well-fed, if not overstuffed, have no such internal regulatory system to rely on. That's how a man-made life-changing event--limitless food supply--has overtaken our adaptive ability to cope. The premise that humans can override our instinctive reaction to food has proven largely to be false, as the sharp increase in childhood obesity and eating disorders can attest. Our internal food and weight regulatory system is thoroughly confused by the interminable excess food intake and availability. The physical effects in just a few decades, to both young and old, act like our own self-inflicted catastrophic event. A system that once ensured human survival now threatens our health and well-being. The easiest way to understand how the system has gone awry is through the adaptive, and maladaptive, ways our body reacts insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that regulates the transfer of energy from the blood supply to the rest of the human body. Food first needs to be digested in the stomach and then absorbed from the stomach and small intestines into the blood supply. After that, it's up to the endocrine system, primarily insulin, to distribute the energy to different parts of the body, to short-term storage--an easily accessible carbohydrate called glycogen--or to long-term storage, fat. In the normal ebb and flow of feast and famine, this regulatory system worked beautifully. The body monitored both energy needs and food intake, and the endocrine system released insulin to maximize the health and longevity of the body through lean and plentiful periods. Weight and metabolism, variables modulated by the endocrine system to maintain health, shifted accordingly. Most importantly, they are not end points but flexible components that fluctuate with the body's needs, not at one's will.
With the advent of limitless food supply, the well-honed system has gone awry, and the rise of childhood diabetes is a case in point. A generation ago, childhood diabetes, caused only by the inability to produce insulin, was to be differentiated from adult-onset diabetes, caused by insulin resistance-- slowed or limited reaction to the release of insulin--an effect of age, or more often weight gain. The public health problem of overweight children has made this nomenclature obsolete. Diabetes is now separated into type I, no insulin production, and type II, insulin resistance, and the unfathomable diagnosis of type II diabetes in children, with the same treatment and long term medical outcomes as in adults, including amputation and kidney failure, is now run of the mill.
What has condemned so many children to the early fate of an adult, debilitating disease is the world of plenty. Left to fend for themselves among the fast food chains, ever-present snacks and vending machines at school, children take in much more food than their bodies need. A child's metabolism no longer faces times of famine or drought, so, exposed to the inability of human metabolism to compensate for persistent, increased food intake, the inevitable cycle of weight gain and overeating continues. As in older adults, obesity, in those susceptible, triggers the onset of type II diabetes. Metabolism could rise, fullness could be triggered more quickly, hunger could wane, but the endocrine system doesn't work that way, for coping with a land of plenty never happened before. Nothing stops the overweight, diabetic child from continuing to eat. No such evolutionary adaptation exists.
The rise of eating disorders--as a general phenomenon, rather than the suffering of one individual--is a different but equally maladaptive response to a world of plenty. Although the ideal female form has, in previous times, been very thin, never before has the entirety of a population encountered this desired body shape and the world of plenty simultaneously. The push-pull of willful food restriction and limitless supply of any food imaginable has tested the human food regulatory mechanism and exposed its weaknesses. The response to starvation, namely slowed metabolism followed by obsessive hunger, is a powerful evolutionary adaptation and almost always wins. The end result, for the majority of dieters and people with eating disorders, is periods of overeating or binging. Repeated attempts to starve only strengthens these internal responses. Surprisingly, years of restricting food intake, even when interrupted by bouts of overeating, affects the body similarly to the overweight who have type II diabetes: their bodies become resistant to insulin. In this case, the body refuses to increase metabolism after years of starvation and instead puts extra food intake into deep storage. Metabolism, and therefore insulin effectiveness, rises only after an extended period of regular food intake. Becoming immune to insulin and storing extra food as fat seems to be the only default reaction to eating patterns outside the norm. In today's world of plenty, it is highly ineffective.
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 Move! 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.
It wasn't long ago that modern medicine purported that 90% of the brain was unused, a spectacular assertion to conceal our almost complete ignorance of brain function. The rapid rate of research in the past two decades has since shown how much there is to learn but also left us in awe of our own internal computing capacity.
Without a more complex understanding of brain function, computers, ironically, serve as the layperson's most apt and comprehensible analogy for how the brain works. Many people still see computers as more powerful, valuing the brute force of swift computation over the sophistication of the brain's learning, memory and recognition prowess. What is most appealing about a computer is that what you see is what you get. Ask a question and you can easily get an answer. Use an app and the function is clear. By comparison, the vagaries of what actually occurs in our brain remain very hazy.
In truth, incorporating the knowledge of brain function into modern life is a challenge. The unique element of being human is our self-awareness: a topic addressed by philosophers for centuries. It is our blessing and our curse. Forced to face the reality of human limitations, a uniquely human experience, people have endlessly searched for comfort through religion, power or substances, to name a few of the largely ineffective solutions. In our current world, much of the comfort stems from a sense of direction and purpose, or more succinctly self-determination.
It's a modern-day myth that hard work and confidence can lead to success. Underlying this goal is anyone's ability to harness their mind for a single purpose; ultimately, we are in control. The most confusing and perhaps most disconcerting realization is the concept that the majority of our brain functions unconsciously. It is preprogrammed to push onwards and, much like the heart, function completely out of awareness. That's fine when we are discussing the gastrointestinal system or neurological reflexes, but it's disturbing to many when it concerns problem solving or personal relationships. To think of our brains more like computers means the triumph of self-control and willpower over the unconscious, automatic brain systems that keep us alive and well. Many people feel lost without self-control as the ultimate tool. But that makes the true implication of brain science tough to process. If 90% of our brain power has been in use the whole time, just not within our awareness, then who are we?
The general consensus that individual motivation and conscious decisions should dictate daily life has clear implications in addressing weight and food. In this scenario, 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 for all of the marketed schemes to manage eating. Gladly, industry will capitalize on our willingness to accept that diet failures are our own fault! It's too easy to vilify the companies making a profit and not recognize the larger need to believe that the perfect diet or ideal weight management solution is just within our grasp. That's not to say we should blame ourselves, but that the alternative explanation, one that incorporates innate responses to food and the limitations of sheer willpower, remains too much to handle. A more reasonable food plan with moderate results that still demands substantial effort has little appeal. The goal is a quick fix with miraculous results, short-term effort followed by a return to life as we know it. This construct, created by individual desire as much as industry, ensures the repeated failures of any new eating scheme and the continuation of society's obsession with how to eat. We all unwittingly believe in the newest, wholly unproven diet and accept that its failure is always our own fault.
Questioning the willpower hypothesis can infuriate those who have spent their adult life bouncing from diet to diet. After years of obsessing about weight loss and dieting, no one wants to believe that the way we eat and what we weigh is largely predetermined. Who wants to think the endless dieting has all been for nought? These naysayers point to the segment of the population that seems to be able to eat when hungry and stop when full, despite access to plentiful food, and say these people have it all figured out. If they can do it, then anyone can. It's just a matter of self-control.
It's not hard to find a member of this group, especially one who is smug enough to think they have all the answers, that their own relationship with food is the solution to the scourge of obesity. The lack of interest in, at least to most everyone else, typically irresistible foods may very well be a coveted trait today but sure isn't any sign of superior willpower. It's just one of the ways humans are born relating to food. Ask a member of this group what their trick is. Not one person can describe a conscious series of thoughts or actions to explain their formidable restraint. It is apparent that willpower is instead the other end of the spectrum of human reaction to food, a variation of the innate way people eat. The emergence of unlimited foods designed to appeal to our base desires reveals the range of human response, from insatiable appetite to a total lack of interest. There are evolutionary explanations for both: overeating in times of plenty triggers fat storage and protects against famine; and delayed gratification leaves excess food for external food storage for the future. Both biological reactions to times of plenty are beneficial. The fundamental challenge is to recognize how we are all hard-wired to respond to the current food environment. Accepting the fact that we are preprogrammed to eat in a certain way is a very bitter pill to swallow. It's anathema to self-determination, that our brains function independently to dictate how and what we eat; or that the availability and quantity of food sets up many, if not the majority of people, to struggle with food; or that no diet or food elimination is the cure for eating in the modern world. So instead we live in the communal delusion that willpower is the final salvation, self-control is just a state of mind.
It's worth spending a little more time on this exclusive club, those who purport to have willpower and self-control in spades. This group has the current ideal relationship with food, one largely innate, that many people will do almost anything to replicate. Examining them more closely yields knowledge about what is considered the goal of the compulsive dieting and weight loss and what is valued by a society with unlimited food.
People capable of a mostly rational approach to food, and devoid of the base urges to eat, also tend to fit a general personality type. In other words, the ability to resist the cornucopia of food in the modern world appears to come with a set of inborn traits, ones for the moment considered enviable, not an iron will. The traits in question include perfectionism, inflexibility, rigidity and, at times, a tendency towards self-punishment. Not only does this kind of person thrive on delayed gratification but often has limited capacity to enjoy the food, once finally allowed, much at all. Typically, food is a repetitive even monotonous daily chore performed with limited pleasure but instead dependent on mundane ritual. This way of eating most resembles the food as a utility model. Even when offered every possible delight, no food is a treat. Instead, the abstemious eater, completely uninterested in anything the food industry has to offer, exists outside this basic pleasure of human life. At its worst, the rigidity can lead to disordered eating or even anorexia, but the desperate overeater, after years of unsuccessful dieting, often sees this lifestyle very differently. To them, it's impossible to see abstemious eating as the door to a joyless world or an eating disorder as the horrendous and wrenching prison it is. In fact, many lifelong dieters wish all necessary food intake could come in a daily pill and want to totally eliminate meals from our existence. If the endless diet and concomitant weight loss are sacrosanct, then a life devoid of the pleasures of food isn't miserable. It's the newest ideal, perhaps the current American dream.
To learn more about the abstemious eater, it behooves the curious to ask the obvious: what do they eat? The answer isn't so obvious at all because it's a trick question. No one is going to follow a member of the club around and log their daily food intake. In fact, no one even asks what they eat. It turns out that what they eat is irrelevant; the perception of what they eat is what matters. What stops the actual inquiry is fear either of being shamed in comparison or of becoming hopeless after seeing the impossible, depressing meal plan in it's entirety. Left without any real information, the curious happen upon an answer based largely on perception: what would an extremely knowledgeable--from years of reading diet and nutrition books--dieter presume a pleasure-free eater to eat. Thus, there is no need for the idealized group to flaunt its superiority (or even mention anything about how to eat), for it's accepted without question by society as a whole. No one wonders or even cares about how unpleasant and joyless an abstemious eater's food life might be. No one cares what they actually eat. As is typically the case for an idealized group, perception trumps reality.
The fundamental perception of an abstemious eater's daily food isn't hard to figure out. A few years into chronic dieting and nutrition education, even the most optimistic dieter realizes that there is no magic solution. On reading assorted nutrition guides, from the extreme diets to the practical to the solely educational, the same information surfaces again and again: more vegetables, varied diet, fewer processed foods, whole ingredients, home-made food. The sage advice turns out to be obvious; there is nothing complicated about choosing a nutritious diet. The problem lies in the application of basic knowledge. The deeper drive to eat, especially the tasty morsels produced by the food industry, easily supplants the best intentions, thus the birth of the myth of willpower. Because nutrition education is so ineffective, most newfangled ideas simply tweak the facts enough to create a new, sure-fire, and hopefully best-selling diet. The public's insatiable appetite for an easy fix opens a market for meal plans that either subtly alter the specific amounts of the nutrition building blocks--protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, etc--as the core of success or boldly find a new culprit for failed diets and eliminate it, the dreaded carbs being the current food villain. Even if purely unsubstantiated, any new fad can become popular when nothing works. The only thing the diets have in common is food restriction, necessary for any weight loss.
Even the most hard working, diligent dieter will forgo the diet fad and failure cycle after a time. The process is so demoralizing that the next step is usually a period of total hopelessness followed by a resurgent desire to truly understand why each diet fails. All signs first point to a lack of willpower, a myth that saves the diet industry from facing its own shortcomings by placing responsibility on the individual. It is much too easy to sidestep the fact that upwards of 95% of diets fail. The next logical step is to return to the perception of an abstemious eater's diet. After a life of education, it's clear that the answer, of course, is "healthy eating."
Ask anyone what healthy eating is and see the looks you'll get.
The gist of any response is how can you not know? Isn't it a given for anyone, especially a parent, to know how and what to eat? It's one of the most basic things in life, like sleeping and walking. Like breathing! Hold on, is this a test? Are you asking if I know what healthy eating is? Really you must know what healthy eating means?
Yes, the reactions range from dumbfounded to incredulous to insulted. But what happens if you probe deeper? It turns out that although the most basic, general rules may be close to universal, once you get to specifics, the answers run the gamut. Anyone can list off the basic rules from nutrition guidelines, but they are of little help day-to-day in the real world. Tackling the real questions is simply overwhelming. Can you eat processed sugar? When and how much? Are snacks ok for adults? For children? What kind of snacks? How much does food really need to be organic? What do you think about all of the "healthy" food labels? Do you look at or tally the nutritional information labels on food? How much carbohydrates or fat or protein is too much, or even too little? Is it necessary to monitor daily salt intake? What to do about dessert? Is having dessert every day ok? What kinds of dessert? Should dessert always lead to guilt? Is dessert always a "bad" food? Are there even good and bad foods? The questions abound and quickly exhaust even the most patient and thoughtful person. If the abstemious eater follows "healthy eating" and the food rules are endless and unanswerable and the so-called experts often support misleading or flat-out erroneous information, then can anyone actually define what healthy eating is? Or is it possible that nobody really knows how to manage the world of plentiful food? Are we all left to fend for ourselves?
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.
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 problem 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 meaninglessness and futility of "healthy eating," is no great sense of relief. There is no other way of life to replace it.
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.
In this context, the supposedly simple task of making "healthy" food choices several times daily is impossible. The basic nutrition facts advocated by government agencies, nutritionists and doctors are valid for the public as a whole but don't reflect the human body's variable metabolic needs. The expert advice only works under the false assumption that we are machines: input the right ingredients and achieve the best result, without regard for the individual. The human body is a living, changing organism honed over years of evolution. It adapts to the current situation day by day, even hour by hour. It's much too complex for a handful of a simple rules. Acting as if each meal exists in a vacuum, as if it's an opportunity to start anew and make a "good" decision, leaves out basic biology.
Our body continually makes internal, automatic decisions about what we need that lie completely out of conscious awareness, whether we like it or not. The interplay between biological imperatives and psychological constraints is complex. Our conscious food choices do matter, but only if they are congruent with what our body needs. When willpower and "healthy" food rules are paramount, no approach to eating will work because body function will always prevail. We all need to take into account that we are animals, not machines, and that survival is predicated on internal signals created by evolution. The goal is to ensure our conscious decisions don't counteract our automatic drives. Heeding the ages is the first step to avoid the cycle of failure of another failed approach to food.
There is the chance that, after absorbing a more complete understanding of eating in today's world, anyone would be demoralized. The state of powerlessness created by the abundance of available food, drive for thinness and inadequate solutions is demoralizing. Amazingly, the practical, applicable information about eating is widely available, and alternate approaches to food are also easy to find. What's so difficult is both to acknowledge these paths and to learn how to apply them. The media-fueled message of "healthy eating" clouds our vision.
There are certain facts about our bodies that, if we respect them, can be very helpful to tame the draw to "healthy eating." A reasonable goal is to create a life in which eating is important but not all-consuming, even in the age of plentiful food. These facts are simple to understand and self-evident. Their application to each meal every day might be challenging but is also well within our grasp.
First, humans are omnivores with a limited ability for long-term storage, as opposed to, for instance, animals that hibernate. This fact leads to a few nutrition truths. We need a variety of foods to provide essentials our bodies cannot produce: ever-changing meals trump monotony. We also need to eat ample, regular meals through the day because long stretches without eating triggers a quick transition to starvation metabolism, i.e. living off our own bodies, a process that fuels the endless focus on food and weight. Variety and regular eating are most easily accomplished when hunger is your friend--a helpful, visceral clue alerting you to eat--rather than the enemy continually forcing you to stray from your diet.
Second, respecting and enjoying food while heeding the reality of the food supply has long been a uniquely human struggle. Yes, the current food climate is self-induced, and the issue is abundance, as opposed to the historical norm of scarcity, but the same principles remain true. Tradition, passed on through family, culture and religion, reinforces important ways to approach food. The expression of gratefulness through moments of pause automatically aids in helping us heed our internal signals. The built-in process of slowing down our thoughts before a meal shifts our attention from daily activities to the meal at hand, and that shifts conscious thought to our automatic reactions: hunger, fullness, taste and pleasure. Similarly, the connection of food to relationships and emotions, an important link between tradition and meals, imbues food with a deeper meaning and encourages us not to take our good fortune for granted but to show respect. Shifting our emotional state during a meal to respect of the food, the cook or actual place of eating automatically forces us to stay present, another critical part of heeding our innate biology. In the same vein, eating is something one should do actively and consciously, not mindlessly or on the run. Last, the act of eating in a communal way, with family, friends or children, allows the tradition of respect and attention to be passed on through generations as well. As it turns out, tradition has already codified the act of eating in concert with our biology. The path is well-worn. It has just been ignored for many years.
The combination of regular eating, attention to hunger and fullness and respect for meals already lays a very different groundwork than "healthy eating." This approach eliminates willpower and the illusion of control from how we eat. There is no room for success, accomplishment and identity in eating and food. Although confidence and self-image are essential for well-being, food and weight aren't the best way to achieve them. Let them move into other, hopefully more productive parts of our lives where we can prosper and struggle. Let food just be food.
At its core, this transformation is about adhering to a new philosophy of food. The cultural messages all stay within the same paradigm. While logically we can all jump on the "healthy eating" bandwagon, biology and evolution dictate our internal response to the world of plentiful food. No matter how hard we try, the recommended approach to all this food is a colossal failure. The nutrition guidelines, more reasonable diets and food plate guidelines are all inherently reasonable, but following reason that doesn't work has only created a population of maddeningly obsessed chain-dieters. The guidelines all ignore the underlying truths about humans and food: we evolved to survive famines; we need to eat varied, regular meals; and, when faced with dire situations, our backup mechanisms insist we become fully consumed with thoughts of food.
And that's what our society has become. A culture obsessed with food and weight is a culture of waste. The prevailing, modern philosophy condones the emptiness of chasing the perfect meal plan and the perfect body while media universalizes these goals. Changing these attitudes involves a new philosophy that respects the unchangeable realities of humans and food and, by doing so, living and eating in a way that frees us from "healthy eating" and perhaps allows us to focus on other aspects of life once again.