You might’ve seen Bill Maher’s fat shaming monologue and James Corden’s hilarious response.
To briefly summarize, Maher points out that obesity is a huge epidemic (true) and argues that being fat should be stigmatized like being a smoker (aka fat shaming).
Corden’s response on why this is just bullying and completely ineffective is way more eloquent than I’d be able to put it.
However, there’s another factor that contributes to obesity that I don’t see talked about as much.
It’s a lack of acknowledgment of the food environment and systems around us.
Smoking is not vital to live. It’s easy to issue a ban and regulate it into the ground. Just look at how quickly the hammer is coming down on vaping.
Food is vital to live. It’s also extremely complicated. It’s also a multi-billion dollar industry, especially when it comes to processed foods.
The thing with businesses is the more product they sell, the more money they make. So they need you to like their stuff. Even better if you’re addicted to their stuff.
That’s why millions are spent on food scientists and researchers to hit all our primal craving triggers and create processed foods that are addicting and leave us wanting more.
There’s actually a name for processed food being just satisfying enough but not too much. It’s called the Bliss Point, as outlined in Salt Sugar Fat.
So that’s the food environment we’re in — millions spent to trigger cravings that have been developed over thousands of years of evolution. Doesn’t really seem fair to say, “Just don’t eat so much,” does it?
“But a calorie’s a calorie, everything in balance!”
A new study by nutrition researcher Kevin Hall studied two groups of adults living in metabolic chambers for four weeks (these kinds of studies are way more reliable than most nutrition studies which rely on self-reporting).
One group ate ultra-processed foods like canned ravioli, hot dogs, white bread, margarine, and packaged cookies. The other group ate unprocessed foods like roast beef, rice pilaf, pasta, hash browns cooked with butter, and full-fat yogurt.
They could have as much food as they wanted. After two weeks the groups switched meals.
Guess what? When people were on the ultra-processed diet they ate about 500 extra calories a day than when eating the unprocessed diet.
By tearing apart ingredients and creating what Michael Pollan calls foodlike substances we are messing with our body’s natural signaling process to stop eating. On top of that, remember that these foods were engineered to hit our bliss point and keep us wanting more.
The energy used by the body after consuming these foods does not match the perceived energy ingested. As a result, the brain gets confused in a manner that encourages overeating. For example, natural sweeteners — such as honey, maple syrup and table sugar — provide a certain number of calories, and the anticipation of sweet taste prompted by these foods signals the body to expect and prepare for that calorie load. But artificial sweeteners such as saccharin offer the anticipation and experience of sweet taste without the energy boost. The brain, which had anticipated the calories and now senses something is missing, encourages us to keep eating.
That’s a quote from this excellent Scientific American article breaking down Hall’s study (along with another one that showed no difference in fat loss between a low-carb and high-carb diet).
So what to do? Obviously processed food isn’t going anywhere. But we control what we put in our bodies.
It starts with knowledge and awareness.
Know that your body isn’t really craving those crackers for survival. It’s craving them because a scientist in a white lab coat tested 500 other variations of crackers and found that you’d crave this one the most.
Be aware of how you feel. Once that initial rush of dopamine wears off from the cookie, do you feel great or do you feel tired and mentally foggy? Was the cookie worth it?
The easiest way to avoid temptation is to make it extremely hard to fall into the trap. If the cookies aren’t around your house to eat, then it’s impossible to eat them.
We may not be able to control the larger food systems, but we can control our own personal food environment.
This was originally posted in my weekly newsletter. It’s got thoughts like this and interesting links and videos focusing on the overlap of fitness and creativity. You can sign up for it here.