How do we get to the root of America's eating habits? Jenni Naughton explores a nation's unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Healthy eating is something which both worries and confuses Americans. In a food health survey conducted by the International Food Information Council in 2012, over half of those polled believed that it was “easier to do their taxes than to figure out how to eat healthily”.
Eating healthily, losing weight, and the complex advice surrounding these concepts is a national preoccupation – an obsession, even – and undoubtedly a very confusing one. Despite (or perhaps because of) an outcry for information about how to eat nutritiously and maintain a healthy weight, the dietary advice which is routinely given out remains conflicted, contradictory, and extremely changeable.
Sarah Ash PhD has pointed out the discrepancies and contradictions in a century of fad-diet advice, and spoken despairingly of the effect it has had upon the world. Most pertinently, she speaks of the attitude which such advice has engendered within the population “It contributes to the good food/bad food dichotomy that generates uncertainty and fear”.
The bottom line, she claims, is that America’s scientific and psychological relationship with food is a complete mess – and one which needs reforming if the nation’s health is to improve. Naturally this is something which impacts directly upon the restaurant industry – most restaurant proprietors would love to see their customers enjoying their food as it is meant to be, rather than fussing over ingredients, worrying about calories, or (worse) stuffing it down in vast, unappreciated heaps.
The food/guilt dichotomy
America’s relationship with food is highly unhealthy. A lot of it stems from Puritan ideas about guilt left over from the time of the earliest colonists. Americans have a tendency to think that things which are good for them must be inherently unenjoyable, while that which is enjoyable is bad. On the face of it, one would assume that this would ensure that Americans stuck rigorously to healthy diets in order to avoid the guilt associated with the enjoyable.
However, in fact the opposite is true. The enjoyable/bad for you association means that unhealthy foods are seen as treats to be enjoyed in moments of ‘guilty’ indulgence. Worse, they are often used as rewards or brought out at times of celebration, cementing the idea that that which is bad for you makes you feel good.
This in turn means that when people who have been brought up with such associations feel down and wish to cheer themselves up, or have achieved something of which they are proud and wish to celebrate, they instinctively look for that which they have been taught is enjoyable – unhealthy foods.
As the University of Rochester put it, “it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves”. When the guilt aspect is added into the mix, a highly dangerous mentality is created wherein food is seen as a devilish tempter both desirable and dangerous, rather than as something necessary to maintain life. This sort of mentality can quickly lead to eating disorders like Bulimia Nervosa, wherein someone indulges in unhealthy foods for emotional support but is then struck by the guilt which attends most Americans when they eat, and purges the calories consumed through vomiting or excessive exercise.
Others swing far over into the ‘guilt’ side of the American eating spectrum, and mortify their bodies through eschewing food altogether, or taking in only minuscule portions. Still others take on board wholeheartedly the subliminal message that what is bad for you is fun, and gorge themselves into obesity. All of these are eating disorders and, as Psychguides say, “among the most dangerous and difficult to treat” of the disorders facing the USA today.
The dangers of selective diets
The situation is not getting any better, either. One would think that the desire to eat healthily would have a positive effect upon America’s relationship with food. After all, it implies an understanding of the impact food has on the body, and a wish to use the right nutrients to get a healthy result.
However, all too often the overall effects are negative. Many healthy eating approaches center around specific ‘diets’ or pieces of scientific research which often fail to take into account the whole nutritional story. In order to sell diet books, for example, gurus must have a new and snazzy hook with which to draw people in – low carb intake, for example, or eating only one thing (like cabbage soup.
Often this revolves around a highly exclusionary gimmick. These are frequently backed up by scientific studies – but fail to make it clear that these studies tend to focus just on one specific part of the picture, and often not in a manner which relates at all well to the whole. It’s a selective method which, while it may inspire short-term weight loss, can do untold long-term damage.
As evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk has said in her criticism of one of the latest fad diets, “when you start plucking out pieces in an oddly specific way, you run into trouble”.
Physically, it can result in people lacking the essential nutrients to be found in ‘forbidden’ food groups. The body then causes them to crave these nutrients – which results in spectacular diet-breaking binges. Psychologically, it results in the toxic idea that food can be the enemy. Everybody suffers – particularly those in the food industry, who are continually fending off accusations that they are promoting unhealthy dietary habits when in fact the problem is largely psychological.
The French paradox
Compare this to the situation in France and its neighbors, where people happily tuck into plates laden with carbs, sugars, fats, and all manner of foods which the American diet industry has inevitably at some point labelled ‘unhealthy’ – yet with no ill effects. This so-called ‘French Paradox’, and it has fascinated researchers since a study in the 70s found that “CHD [Coronary Heart Disease] mortality in southern Europe was considerably lower than that in northern Europe”, despite the fat and carb-laden diets prevalent in these areas.
It seems, however, that the solution is relatively simple. The French lack the associations which Americans have with food which categorizes vast swathes of the nutritional spectrum as ‘evil tempter’ or ‘guilty indulgence’. As such, they do not go on emotional eating binges or reward themselves with food.
Neither do they attempt to attack their waistlines by cutting certain food types from their diet. Instead, they enjoy and savor their food – loving it as a culinary experience but eating only until they are sated. This has unparalleled effects on their health. According to the OECD, the French not only have exceedingly low rates of CHD, they can also triumphantly claim that “Obesity rates in France are among the lowest” in Europe.
Something to work towards
The thing is, of course, that the oldest advice still remains the best: Everything In Moderation. The best diet is a balanced one, encompassing all the food groups (including fats, carbs, sugar etc), and consumed in order to enjoy the food rather than to fulfill an emotional need. Telling Americans who are already deeply entrenched in the old food/guilt associations that they must not feel guilty about eating may well prove counterproductive and result in a mass binge of the kinds of foods Americans have been taught to seek to make themselves feel good.
The best thing to do is undoubtedly to attempt to remove the psychological association at the source. We should attempt to instill a set of proper nutritional guidelines aimed not at making people feel guilty about what they cannot eat, but instead teaching them to truly enjoy cooking and consuming healthy, balanced diets. The best way to do that is to ditch the faddy, selective diets which are currently doing so much damage to people’s bodies and minds.
Jenni Naughton is a freelance journalist. She specialises in writing about health, sport, nutrition and parenting