America is in, to quote the title of a new book, “A Big Fat Crisis.”
The crisis in question is what the surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, this week called the defining public health challenge of our time. So we need more than ever to understand,”The Hidden Forces Behind The Obesity Epidemic — And How We Can End It,” to quote the subtitle of that new book.
Author Deborah Cohen, an MD and senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, makes two powerful points (among others):
• Given human nature — particularly all the ways we’re hard-wired to perceive and eat food — the current food environment (or “food swamp,” as she puts it) pushes most of us willy nilly into extra weight, and we cannot realistically expect most people to have the superhuman self-control needed to resist it.
• Given that obesity has become a major public health problem, it is time for the government to step in, as it has in past public health crises — including, most classically, bringing in better sewage systems in the 19th century to stem water-borne diseases like cholera. Government measures could range from restricting displays of junk food to rating restaurants on how healthy their menus are.
I leave it to others to debate those central messages; I asked Dr. Cohen instead to expand on a more minor point that particularly rang true for me. On page 184, she includes this little coping tip: “Look at the current food environment and purveyors of processed foods with suspicion.” She writes:
“If we start viewing the worst offenders in the food and beverage industries with disdain, their efforts will fail to persuade us to buy their products. We will have inoculated ourselves against companies that sell us junk foods and that advertise and market those foods relentlessly. The best thing about this approach is that we won’t have to use up any of our willpower or limited cognitive capacity to reject these unhealthy foods — we will say no automatically, as we do when faced with anything suspicious.”
Recent books and media coverage can certainly help fan our suspicion, particularly the rising criticism of “Big Food,” and marketers whose products have been clearly shown to be obesogenic — soda, candy, junk food in general. Personally, I’ve found my own food attitudes shifting as my distrust of food-makers has risen, as I’ve read more about how marketers develop “hyper-palatable” foods to hook us, and stores design their shelves to maximize impulse buying. (In fact, Dr. Cohen cites findings that supermarkets often gain more income from vendors who pay for the prominent placement of their foods than from selling the food itself.)
It’s reached the point that, if I find a truly indefensible bit of junk food in my pantry, I may declare it “non-food” — “They only want us to think that it’s food, but it has no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever!” — and throw it out. My tainted attitude vastly diminishes any appeal it may have. Eating it would make me a sucker.
So Dr. Cohen’s prescription for suspicion made sense to me, and I asked her to expand on it further: Can we really use our own disdain and distrust to lose weight and improve our health?
Our conversation, edited:
Deborah Cohen: First, I want to say that I actually think that trying to have each person solve this problem on their own is doomed to failure, because the environment is so powerful and it affects us in ways that we can’t always recognize. Unless we can control the environment, we’re not going to be able to control ourselves very well. That’s for most people. Yet there will be some people who can take this advice and put it to good use to lose weight, but that’s not going to be everybody.
Point taken, and I must say, I found your emphasis on the power of these automatic responses to food, that most of us cannot control, very comforting, because it has long baffled me that so many of us — including me — can accomplish so many other things but not lose unwanted weight. So how can distrust help us?
The easiest things to give up are junk food items like candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips. Let’s start there, because those are generally very recognizable, and they’re placed in our faces everywhere we go. If we can look at those items and think, ‘Those are being made to trick me, to dupe me and to take my money’ it will be easier to resist them. If you think about a bag of potato chips, that might be less than half a potato in there, the ingredients might cost a few pennies, but they’re going to charge you a dollar or more. The ingredients are cheaper than the labor, packing and advertising that are used to sell them.
So if we think that junk food is ripping us off, maybe we’re going to be less likely to buy it. We’re being ripped off financially, we’re being tricked because this food will increase our risk for chronic disease, and they’re exploiting our human nature to want something quick, convenient and tasty. So be suspicious.
Also, think about sugar-sweetened beverages. Continue reading