It’s Not You, It’s the Food

Researchers put 20 people in a lab, fed them tasty meals that they enjoyed, and encouraged them to eat until they were satisfied.

But there were two kinds of buffets: one composed of “real” foods in their natural form (such as a beef roast, broccoli, rice and salad), and a typical modern diet of processed foods (such as a turkey sandwich and baked potato chips). The group eating the whole-food buffet lost weight without realizing it, while the group eating the processed-food buffet gained weight.

This hilarious but rather disturbing food is a “cake sandwich” with white bread, ham salad, pimento cheese, and cream cheese frosting (Nuevo Laredo, Mexico)

When the groups were switched, the same thing happened: people lost weight eating as much natural food as they wanted, while the other group gained weight eating the modern foods.

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.

Soft drinks are everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere on Ecuador’s Pacific coast

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.

Ice cream, sodas, and me, 2011

I draw three conclusions from all this.

Mexico City street cart: sugar, corn flour, vegetable oil and artificial colors

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 jalapeños pretzel bits.

What about the logical argument that people are responsible for their choices? True, no one is forcing me to eat ice cream in that photo, although social pressure can be strong — BUT with many modern (non-natural!) phenomena, humans have trouble resisting and can easily consume too much for good health and well-being: think of alcohol, gambling, pornography, social media, cigarettes, or opioids. In the case of processed foods, the people in the study ate just 500 calories more than they needed per day without realizing it. I’m sure that’s what I was doing too. The way out of any of these “traps” is to recognize our human susceptibility with kindness, get support from others, and resolve to take care of ourselves out of love, not shame. Self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence, as Kristen Neff explains in this great 12-minute video.

With food, I believe 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.

Pretty close to traditional food in Ecuador: local fish, beans, fried plantains, fresh salad, small amount of white rice.

And I think the popular and appealing strategy of “intuitive eating” is best suited to more natural foods. Like the people in the study, if we’re eating foods in their natural form (we’d recognize them as coming from a farm; unfortunately this doesn’t include bread, at least in my case), most of us can likely 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, have trouble relying on our natural “stop” signals with highly processed foods. Think about unsalted peanuts versus honey roasted peanuts. How many would you eat? Why is there a difference?

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.

– says me
Fresh cactus in the magnificent produce section of the Nuevo Laredo HEB supermarket

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. If you’d like to discuss your own lifestyle plan and how you can incorporate more natural foods and movement (and perhaps lose excess fat without suffering?), please book a completely free coaching session with me here! Thanks for reading this, and hope to see you again soon!

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