It’s a point made in virtually every study on our nation’s obesity epidemic: It’s never been easier to overeat – or less necessary. Our high-tech world means there’s seldom a need to do anything more physical than tap a screen, yet we’re still eating as though we’ve spent the day behind a plow.
Think of all that’s changed in the way we consume and use our personal energy supplies in just the last couple hundred years or so:
- Food was once gathered, harvested or caught. It took work. Now it’s handed to us through our car window.
- Food was once available primarily in its original container – in other words, whole. Now we are much more likely to buy a cardboard bucket of deep-fried, heavily salted French fries than a potato.
- Moving from one place to another once burned calories. Now it burns gasoline.
- Sitting was once something you did at the end of the day, if lucky. Now, thanks to Internet-fueled devices that bring the world to us, sitting is our day.
It’s easy calories combined with fewer opportunities to burn them, and that has been a deadly combination. About one in three adults and one in six children are obese, with medical costs of about $150 billion annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is a major cause of death, due to related issues such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It’s also linked to our mental health. Adults with depression are more likely to be obese, for example.
But perhaps the biggest driver of our obesity epidemic is our neurology. Evolution designed our brains to release a surge of pleasure chemicals with each fatty, sugary or salty mouthful. It’s a way of motivating us to keep looking for food. That worked beautifully in past times, when scraping together enough nutrients for survival took effort and commitment. Today, however, our brains are still telling us, “Eat! Eat! You never know when you’ll get another chance!” in an era when calorie-packed food choices are everywhere we turn.
And it’s not just any food: It’s processed high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods designed to send our taste buds into overdrive and keep us craving more. Research indicates such “hyperpalatables” can even spark an addictive response. For example, brain scans of those who rate high on a food addiction scale show that just looking at a picture of a typical binge food can light up the brain in the same way as drugs do for a person with a substance use problem. Even the variety of food available today works against us. A recent study noted that the more we have to choose from, the more we tend to eat.
Cathy Kaufman, chair of the Culinary Historians of New York, agrees it’s a tough time to make good food choices but warns against romanticizing the past. No matter the era, “It’s always been a bit of a struggle to get a healthy meal on the table,” she said. Still, she is troubled by many trends, including the foods “engineered for the ‘bliss point,’ so you just want to keep going,” she said. “It’s why I don’t buy potato chips.”
She also laments modern portion sizes. “It’s been this bigger is better mentality,” she said. “The size of a muffin or a bagel or a donut has basically trebled over the past 40 years.” The average restaurant meal is a full four times larger today than it was in the 1950s. “People equate value with size, unfortunately,” Kaufman said. “I remember when I was a kid, I took dance lessons and there was a Coke machine in the dance studio. You could go and get your Coke and it was 6.5 ounces, and that was considered a portion. Today, God forbid you can find anything other than those supersized ones.”
Most dismaying, Kaufman said, are the farm subsidies started in the 1970s that made it profitable to include high fructose corn syrup in, well, just about everything. “It was a hidden sugar, and people were just not aware of it. If I had to point to one bogeyman,” she said, “that would be it.”
A Healthier Direction?
We are now officially in a public health crisis, but there is a glimmer of hope that we may at last be primed for a turnaround. Obesity rates have stabilized on average, according to the latest statistics, and preschoolers’ weight has dropped significantly, an indication that public education campaigns geared toward the young may be working. The FDA recently finalized rules calling for nutritional information on fast-food and chain restaurant menus and on vending machines, meaning it will soon be easier to make good choices.
There are also helpful tools such as the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov website, which allows visitors to create nutritious daily food plans. And Kaufman sees positives in the growing consumer interest in eating well rather than eating fast. She noted many schools are even offering home economics classes again – and not just for the girls this time. “It’s really wonderful to see kids are interested in learning how to cook.”
Still, we remain in an era that combines easy, unhealthy pickings, an evolutionary urge to consume, and a largely sedentary lifestyle. Avoiding unhealthy weight gain takes effort and attention in some key areas:
- Watch the portions: When eating out, it’s easy to order a single meal that exceeds your entire daily allotment of calories, fat and salt. Consider splitting an entrée, or immediately put half of your meal (or more) in a to-go box. The good news, Kaufman said, is that restaurants and diners both are becoming more aware of the need to pare back on portions. “You can now go order a couple of appetizers, and no one looks at you like you’re crazy.” At home, serve yourself a plate of food rather than having seconds within arm’s reach on the table
- Rethink your snacks: Instead of reaching for a Snickers or a muffin, consider snacks that offer nutrition as well as satisfaction – perhaps string cheese and a peach, or apple slices and peanut butter. Books such as The Hunger Fix by Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, have specifics on eating well and overcoming an addictive response to food.
- Boost your servings of fresh fruits and vegetables: They will help fill you up so you’ll be less likely to turn to unhealthy options, and, of course, they protect against many physical illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Another plus: Research shows the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the more likely you are to have high mental well-being.
- Beware of anything in a box or a wrapper: Processed foods are typically heavy on salt, sugar and fat, all the things that can set off cravings for more, or lead to food addiction. Get educated on the dangers with books such as the landmark Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.
- Pay attention to labels: Don’t assume that sleeve of cookies is an individual serving. Read the label, and not just for serving size. Check the calories, saturated fat, sugars and salt. You may get an unpleasant surprise.
- Move: Our forefathers likely would have shaken their heads in disbelief at the thought of creating rooms where people could go to expend energy – in other words, gyms. But we have to face that fact that how we live and work today generally means we have to seek out physical activity. If the gym doesn’t excite you, consider dance class, yoga, kayaking, mountain climbing, biking – whatever gets you moving.