Put 20 people in a lab, feed them tasty meals that they enjoy, and let them eat until they’re satisfied.
If they’re eating whole, unprocessed foods, they lose weight. If they’re eating highly processed foods, they gain weight. Switch the groups and the same thing happens.
Of course this single, small-scale (although highly controlled) study, which I wrote about last week, can’t provide definitive answers. But I think it points to something important.
As soft drinks, packaged snacks and other processed foods spread around the world, displacing traditional ways of eating, we have seen a steady rise in overweight and obesity across regions (most frighteningly in children and adolescents).
It’s unlikely that humanity, across cultures and continents, has suddenly experienced a mass failure of self-control or undergone a genetic shift. It’s the environment that has changed, not the people.
Of course many other factors must be involved in this development, such as sedentary lifestyles, more affordable food, more time spent looking at screens, fewer meals cooked at home, larger portion sizes, hormone disruption, and changes in our gut bacteria.
But clearly, something negative happens when people move away from traditional ways of eating, such as the Mediterranean diet, whose health-promoting benefits are consistently shown by research. (Many other ancestral diets surely have similar benefits, it’s just that the Mediterranean diet has been studied more closely.)
Here’s an interactive website showing the dramatic increases in overweight and obesity around the world. You can drag the sliders at the bottom of each graphic and see how the situation has changed since 1975.
I draw three conclusions from all this.
First, we shouldn’t blame or shame individuals (including ourselves) for being overweight. For the first time ever, the world is now seeing significant numbers of obese children, as well as adolescents with type 2 diabetes. Something in our food/cultural/physical environment is making this happen.
Anyway, there is abundant evidence that shame does NOT lead to positive changes in health: quite the opposite. When I was overweight, even well-meaning “reminders” from others just brought up feelings of helplessness, and since food was a stress-management strategy for me at the time, I was even more likely to turn to a bag of jalapeño pretzel bits for comfort.
Second, a key strategy (and the one I followed to get healthier) is to consume more whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods from nature — the foods our bodies evolved to eat. This could be a Mediterranean diet, a “paleo” type plan, or simply adding more of your favorite vegetables and fruits to your current lifestyle, letting them drive out less nutritious foods.
Third, “intuitive eating” (a concept which I love and am learning more about) seems best suited to more natural foods. We can eat until we’re satisfied, without counting calories or measuring portions, and we aren’t tempted to overdo it with the salmon or sneak into the kitchen for more cauliflower. However, it seems that many of us, including the randomly selected people in the study I’ve been talking about, have trouble relying on our natural “stop” signals with highly processed foods. (More on this in future blog posts!)
The modern environment is not designed to promote our highest level of well-being. Snack foods and social media are both literally engineered to be “cravable.” And our workplaces and neighborhoods are designed around chairs and cars, not natural movement.
To live healthily, I think we have to push back (without blaming ourselves for how we’ve lived up to now), set boundaries (without becoming overly rigid, which brings its own set of problems) and take on the positive, life-affirming challenge of incorporating more movement, self-care, in-person social time, and delicious natural foods into our lives.
Hmm, that sounds a bit complicated. But I’ve found with myself and others that discovering the right formula — regular physical activity you truly enjoy, natural foods you love, physical/emotional/mental self-care, and the social support you need — brings freedom and joy, as well as health benefits. Certainly not deprivation and drudgery, which is how so many people think about “diet” and “exercise.”
That’s why I’m never going back to my inactive, low-self-esteem, comfort-food lifestyle, and that’s why I’m talking about this to anyone who will listen :). Thanks for reading this, and see you next week!