Nutritional struggles in the U.S. are painted as an individual failing when they’re more reflective of pervasive systems involving school, work, and economics.
Specifically, key problems lie in what we eat, how we eat, and why we eat it. Yup, that’s all.
More willpower is explicitly NOT the solution; getting to know yourself better is.
Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes
By now, the obesity crisis has been discussed, debated, and dissected for decades, to the point that there may appear to be little left to say about it. However, the common explanations often strike me as overly simplistic to condescending, as well as light on actual solutions. The factors frequently blamed boil down to some combination of the following:
- A diet too high in processed foods
- Sedentary lifestyles
While these twin culprits do technically bear a bulk of the responsibility, they don’t tell the full story. Plus, this description is layered with a not-so-subtle element of blaming individual willpower. Just look at the final line from this study on obesity, published in a medical journal as recently as 2020. “However, by avoiding certain foods that are popular in the American diet and including healthier options such as those recommended by the USDA, we can significantly reduce the rate of obesity and its long-term complications.”
Oh, it’s that simple, is it? Great! All people have to do is avoid certain popular foods and follow the USDA’s recommendations.
Since obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980, clearly, that hasn’t worked. In fact, according to Forbes, 42% of American adults meet the criteria for classification as obese, and 69% are considered overweight. Now, that second statistic is somewhat misleading, as it’s based on BMI, which doesn’t take muscle mass into account. However, Harvard researchers predict that if current trends continue, half of U.S. adults will have obesity by 2030. So, what’s actually going on here? We’re going to dive deeper than surface level to talk about root causes. We’ll also discuss solutions, because the findings regarding said causes may initially strike you as pretty bleak. But we’re never completely without hope, so let’s dive in.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
In cases like these, where this many people aren’t doing well, the problem is less the individual and more the system. And that brings us to our first major issue. We’re conditioned to see struggles with weight as purely an issue of willpower and effort. This classification of the problem as an individual failing has insidious consequences, because it allows a detrimental system to stay in place unquestioned.
So, here’s my attempt to succinctly summarize the overarching causes of the problem.
From a young age, too many of us enter into a school and extracurricular activity system that leaves us with little time to eat. This encourages a style of rapid eating that makes us lose touch with our body’s natural sensations of fullness. The type of foods that are most affordable and readily available exacerbate this problem, as their respective chemical makeups encourage us to keep eating long past the point of satiety. After we’re done with school, we graduate into a work culture that keeps us highly stressed and de-prioritizes movement and proper sleep.
Highly tasty but questionably nutritious food serves as the perfect coping mechanism for the stress, uncomfortable feelings, and lack of satisfaction that result from living in this reality. Troublingly, this work system leaves few parents with the time, money, energy, and cooking skills to prepare anything other than cheap, processed foods for their children, thus creating a vicious cycle that passes these problems on to the next generation.
And yes, it is indeed possible to find ways around all of these limitations. But in this case, the statistics don’t lie. When one practically has to be an outlier to be healthy, we shouldn’t expect that to be different until sweeping, systematic change happens. However, that doesn’t look likely anytime soon, so let’s dive deeper into what we can do about each of the main issues, which really boil down to the following:
- What we eat
- How we eat
- Why we eat
What we eat: What do we really mean by “processed foods?”
First, we should clarify this term, because it’s often thrown around with a lack of precision. Technically, even cooking food is a form of processing. So whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t eat any processed foods,” I know they’re misinformed as well as deluding themselves.
However, one type of processed food stands out from the crowd. “Ultra-processed” or “junk” food, like Oreos and Doritos deserve special mention. If you’ve ever grabbed a handful of chips or cookies only to look down in horror a few minutes later and see that the entire package has disappeared, this will resonate with you. These foods are engineered in a way that the most ancient parts of our brains find irresistible.
Back in our hunter-gatherer days, such a large number of calories in a comparatively small volume of food was an exceptional deal from an evolutionary standpoint. An abandoned hive of honey or a particularly fatty, juicy piece of buffalo meat would have greatly enhanced your chances of survival and passing on your genes, so our brains responded accordingly. “Eat, eat, eat until you can barely move,” commanded our drive to survive. The chemical composition of such treats literally overrides the brain signals that tell us to stop because we’re full.
The problem is, indulgences like empty beehives overflowing with golden nectar were rare hundreds of thousands of years ago. Now, every grocery store comes stuffed to the brim with “excellent caloric deals” that we no longer need for survival. Plus, this increased abundance of food has only been the case for less than 100 years. Evolution needs way more time to catch up. So, if you’ve ever wondered, “Why can’t I stop?” when chowing down on your favorite snack, now you know. You’re battling millions of years of evolution, an opponent that tends to win.
The only real solution is not to buy the foods that have this effect on you. For me, that’s Tostitos Hint of Lime tortilla chips. As much as I love them, it’s not great for my mental and physical health to regularly down a full bag in one sitting. So, I probably purchase them only once or twice a year as a deliberate treat. Identify which foods have a similar effect on you, and do the same.
How we eat: Way too fast!
Here’s an experiment for you. The next time you have a meal at home, try the following:
- After each bite, set down your utensil (or the food itself, if it’s something like a sandwich)
- Chew your food fully before swallowing
- Take a sip of your drink
- Take one full breath (inhale and exhale)
- Notice if you start to feel full before you’ve finished every bite
If you’re anything like me, this will feel incredibly unnatural, even uncomfortable. At least at first. That’s because from a young age, we’re regularly forced to wolf down our meals before rushing off to school or some other activity. Meals are often eaten in the car, no less. The old adage about the brain needing 20-30 minutes to realize it’s been fed is indeed accurate, and speed eating is hardly conducive to this time frame. Further, when we’re used to eating quickly, we tend to do so until we feel stuffed. This leads to consuming far more calories than we need, especially when paired with the type of ultra-processed foods we discussed in the last section.
So, give this experiment a try, and make an effort to incorporate it into at least one meal a day.
Why we eat: Food is the most effective coping mechanism
Put simply, food is the one potential addiction you can’t quit cold turkey. With any other substance or activity, you can theoretically create a situation where you’re no longer exposed to it. But this doesn’t work for food. We all need to eat, typically multiple times a day.
The challenge becomes clear when we understand that food is (at the moment of discomfort) the most effective coping mechanism in existence. Eating is so innately pleasurable that when experiencing stress, anxiety, boredom, sadness, or any other feeling we’d rather be rid of, a handful of Oreos works wonders. At least, in the short term.
Using tasty foods as a coping mechanism has unintended health consequences down the line, but I think it at least helps to acknowledge this universal truth of the human experience. Because tons of people are dealing with unresolved trauma, live highly stressful lives, and are not taught how to handle discomfort, it makes total sense to instinctively reach for something that will instantly numb it.
Hunger vs. Cravings
What’s the solution? Well, awareness is the first step. While this may be oversimplifying matters, we can start by learning to differentiate between hunger and cravings.
Hunger is generally a physical sensation. It also arises gradually and is “non-specific.” This means that multiple options have the potential to satisfy it. By contrast, cravings are typically a thought-based phenomenon. They arise quickly and say, “I won’t be satisfied until I’ve had my fill of this very particular taste sensation. Nothing else will do!”
As such, I often recommend taking a week to make note of every single time you eat. Afterwards, indicate whether eating followed a craving or true hunger. If it followed a craving, what was the associated situation or emotion? It’s worth remembering that increased stress and insufficient sleep make cravings far more likely. They also make thoughts associated with them far more compelling. Realizing when cravings are happening to you (and proving to yourself that you don’t have to listen to them!) can be a crucial step in avoiding eating when you don’t truly need to.
Think of it this way. You don’t run up and try to seduce every attractive person you see in public, do you? Even if your lizard brain told you to do that when you were a hormone-addled teenager, you’ve learned to exercise some restraint. The same can be true with food cravings.
Where do we go from here?
As I mentioned earlier in the piece, this can all sound fairly bleak. Clearly, when it comes to optimal nutrition, the deck is stacked against us. We learn to eat the wrong foods in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Well, maybe wrong is a bit harsh. I’ll amend it to “sub-optimal.” However, there is a way around all of this, while not making ourselves miserable by eating boiled chicken and broccoli for every meal.
It starts by deeply getting to know yourself from a nutritional standpoint. I recently worked with a longtime friend and client, Frank, to develop a free guide that helps you do just that. I put the framework in place, he tested it out, then made it pretty and user-friendly. The guide we designed will help you make the crucial observations and develop the skills you need in order to feel in complete control of your nutritional outcomes. And within the next 30 days, I’ll be providing it for free to anyone who wants it. But in the meantime, remember this.
It’s been said that the average person is depressed, debt-ridden, divorced, overweight, and in physical and mental pain. But despite what I titled this piece, these things don’t have to be normal. We can create a better world, and it starts by acknowledging that though the deck may be stacked against you, and though the system may set you up for failure, you can fight back. It starts with taking the time to learn what you truly need and then building a base of knowledge, skills, and systems that reflects these needs rather than relying on willpower alone.
You’ve got this! And I’m happy to provide a helping hand on the way.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Are you interested in receiving the nutrition guide? Reply to this email and let me know!