Seems like a silly question, no? We live in an era where information is available within a few keystrokes, and certainly, the Internet is rife with health and fitness info.

And yet, people are confused. The fact is, there are so many contradictory and/or vague recommendations out in the ether that the overall impression is that no one really knows anything.

A study by Rebekah Nagler (reference below), published in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, highlights this problem. Nagler determined that in the face of too much contradictory information, consumers understandably get confused and as a result ignore not only the contradictions — since they can’t figure out which is correct — but also the long-standing well-documented information, such as increasing intake of vegetables and some fruits. Presenting contradictions destroys the credibility of all recommendations.

And if you think that scientists don’t truly know what’s healthy and what’s not, the news media exacerbates the confusion. Science writing leaves a lot to be desired, and editors often present an over-processed, over-simplified explanation of study results, topped off with sensational headlines. People, this isn’t entertainment. This is science. But in the race for “likes”, media outlets want to reel in as many viewers/readers as possible.

So let’s extrapolate a bit to weight loss recommendations, a hot topic these days. People often repeat the mantras of, “I should eat better” and “I need to exercise more”. But what exactly do those mean? If you ask twelve different personal trainers — the professionals most likely to be sought for aid in “getting in shape”, another amorphous concept — you’ll likely get twelve different answers. Paleo vs. vegan? Moderate, consistent walking vs. high intensity interval training? P90X vs. Crossfit? Low-carb vs. low-fat? Which one is best? Or even more controversially, which one is healthiest? An “it depends” doesn’t work in a world where everyone wants a specific answer, and NOW. But really, it depends. 

The fact is, as far as food recommendations are concerned, the easy part is knowing you should lose the Doritos and drive-thru visits. The hard part is dodging the incoming missiles that tell you to eat bacon instead of whole grains, drink raw (i.e., unpasturized) milk, ignore vegetables because eating them is unnecessary, etc. Often, these recommendations go against the guidelines currently touted by the US government, which leads to an uncomfortable realization that what we thought was a good source of information is not trustworthy.

Or is it?

Or rather, is there anyone out there who really, truly doesn’t have a financial stake in this?

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Reference:

Nagler, R.H. (2014). Adverse outcomes associated with media exposure to contradictory nutrition messages. J Health Commun. 19(1): 24-40.

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Recently, I participated in a discussion about a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, during which one person expressed frustration that a tax would impinge on our freedom of choice. This concern is not new and many have argued that the government oversteps its authority when it tries to discourage consumption of foods deemed to be unhealthy. However, I found the freedom of choice argument very interesting because, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Used to be, there was one type of Oreo cookie. Now, according to NabiscoWorld.com, there are fifty varieties of Oreos to choose from. FIFTY. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to breakfast cereals, and yet think of how many people skip breakfast altogether (the estimates I found ranged from 20-40%)! You can’t drive far without passing a fast-food joint, and the last time I went to Fedex something, they had several shelves of candy conveniently close to the cashier, lest you get hungry while standing in line. And the list goes on.

You want something, you can get it, and umpteen varieties of it. Food choices have greatly increased in the past 20-30 years, and this explosion in variety has been implicated as a factor in the increase in obesity: we are likely to consume more when we have a variety of foods to choose from rather than when our choices are limited (Physiol Behav. 1981. 26(2): 215-221.; Obes Res. 2005. 13(5): 883-890.).

Need help finding anything?

To make things worse, much of this variety comes in the form of prepared, processed foods that require little effort to consume. You can find several types of squash in the produce section, but that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling selection of chips in the snack food aisle, ready to eat as soon as you get them out of the store.

And yet, there’s also choice when it comes to exercise. So many different exercise classes, an overabundance of weight machines for every muscle group, a wide array of training protocols and cardio equipment at which you can stand, sit and lie. A flavor to suit every potential exerciser. All this, but about 70% of Americans do not exercise regularly, citing “lack of time” as the main reason…so the myriad of choices hasn’t resulted in more interest…

…however, consider that cable television providers offer over 900 channels of distractions. With that kind of competition for your time and appetite, is it surprising that many people have difficulty establishing healthy food and exercise routines?

My take on this is that we’re nowhere near in danger of running out of choices. Rather, we have far too many selections of the wrong kind of stuff for our own good. Most people expect government intervention in the food industry so that they can be confident that their food is safe. At the same time, Americans freak out if the government proposes legislation to limit access to unhealthy food because that’s viewed as infringing on our personal freedom.

And besides, we’re all smart enough to make healthy choices. Right?

It’s obvious that our world has a weight problem. It should be equally obvious that it’s not something that will go away overnight. The state of overweight is a multifaceted issue that encompasses a broad range of variables, but today’s post is about something more specific that has a significant effect on us: the role of food in our lives.

It used to be that humans were responsible for gathering their own food — waaaay back when we were hunters and gatherers. Much of early man’s day was dedicated to finding sustenance for survival. As time went on, through division of labor and specialization, we left the food procurement and preparation to farmers, ranchers, bakers, cooks (moms, although admittedly, it’s not one of my stronger points) and the like.

Now, most of us in the industrialized world don’t worry about whether we’ll eat. We worry about where and what. Oh the choices! Narrowing down our options taxes our highly-developed brains. Interestingly, some of the biggest arguments my husband and I had (pre-kids) had to do with where we were going to dine. That’ll test the strength of your marriage: two very hungry humans in one little car, one vegetarian/one omnivore, so many possibilities but nothing seems to please both, neither wants to make the final decision.

No worries, we’ve gotten over that.

Over the years there’s been a shift from food-as-fuel to food-as-entertainment. The food industry has had a hand in this, and their marketing departments have been working overtime. Food portions have exploded to ridiculous sizes, food formulations contain a jacked up amount of salt/sugar/fat to excite our senses, all in multiple versions to appease our obsession with variety. We are encouraged to treat ourselves, indulge, make tonight special — because we’re worth it, we deserve it.

So…when we can make tonight special…and by extension of that, make every night special…what do we do when we really want something SPECIAL? When getting home through traffic deserves a treat, how do we treat ourselves on the days that call for a true celebration? In essence, we’ve raised the bar on indulgences.

And fun. Food must now be FUN, particularly when kids are involved. You see it in parents’ magazines and of course it’s prevalent in advertising to “kids of all ages”. We’re all brought back to our childhood when we could stuff ourselves silly and not worry about repercussions.

But the longer we cling to the notion that food serves a purpose other than to nourish us, the more we strengthen the influence that it has on our emotions. Most of the people I speak with have some sort of emotional link to food that makes dropping weight all that more difficult. That’s when the simple concept of “healthy eating and exercise” becomes not-so-simple.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t treat your body with food rewards. Treat your body with respect.

If you’re interested in food issues, I highly recommend setting aside time for viewing Prof. Kelly Brownell’s course, The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food (psyc123, filmed during the Fall 2008 semester), offered through Open Yale (it’s free!). Brownell is the director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and an excellent lecturer, and the information presented ranges from interesting to jaw-dropping. I’m not prepared to comment on the course as a whole since I’m only on the ninth lecture (there are 23 in all), but will say that it’s already exceeded my expectations.

Here’s a description, taken directly from the course website:

“This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.”

I strongly urge you to view the lecture topics and see if anything appeals. Happy learning!

Difficulties with the link above? Go to: http://oyc.yale.edu/psychology/the-psychology-biology-and-politics-of-food/

This started out as a post about the evils of meal-skipping, but I found myself writing about how we fool ourselves into less-than-ideal choices when in a food-deprived state. So I’ll use skipping meals as a vehicle for exploring a couple of these concepts.

Take this scenario: You have no time for breakfast and rush in to work with a cup of coffee. Around 11am you poke your nose into the conference room and see the leftover Krispy Kreme doughnuts from someone’s morning meeting. You snag a couple, noting that you didn’t have breakfast and won’t have time for lunch.

Work is stressful. Answering phone calls, replying to emails, writing reports. Barely time to go to the bathroom. You work late, alternating between coffee and soft drinks to keep you going. By 8pm  you’re starving, irritable and ready to bite someone’s head off. The last thing you can imagine — or have patience for — is cooking.

Instead of heading home, you swing by Outback Steakhouse, drawn in by the thought of a juicy burger. You order their bacon cheeseburger, but because you want to be “good”, you get the house salad with oil & vinegar as a side, instead of succumbing to the temptation of their Aussie fries. Top that off with a drink.

Here’s the ugly part: In two sittings, you’ve already consumed over 2000 calories just like that (surprise, the house salad does you no favors). It may seem unfair but the food industry works hard to make eating easy.

Two of the things that are influencing your actions:

1) Justification. You justify your food choices by figuring that because you’ve had fewer meals, you’ve “saved up” calories that can now be spent on crappy food. It doesn’t work that way. The food that you’re most likely to reach for when you’re starved has been engineered to be easily consumable for the sake of convenience, because we’re so bloody impatient. That means you’ll have eaten a lot more of it before your stomach signals to your brain that it’s full. Never a good thing.

Note: If you feel the need to use phrases like “I know this isn’t the healthiest, but…” and “I’m being bad, but…” then you are desperately searching for a justification for your choices. You know what you’re doing is unhealthy, but you’re doing it anyway. Do that enough, and you’ll be waking up wondering where those extra 40 pounds came from.

2) Perception. Maybe you think that the only things you ate all day were two doughnuts, a cheeseburger and a salad. Sounds rather innocuous when you put it that way. Also sounds like you’d come up calorie-deficient. The problem is that people are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to recalling how much they’ve eaten. Reality bites: those doughnuts range between 200-400 calories each and the burger and salad amount to just under an insane 1500 cals — “No rules, just wrong”! That doesn’t include the caloric cost of any drinks consumed along the way. And you refused the bread basket, right?

Note: Many people don’t really know what a healthy meal looks like. Meat & potatoes? A salad with light dressing? Our beliefs regarding proper food choices are based on many things, but least frequently science. Quite confusing and frustrating for someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing (skipping meals, perhaps) because it seems so logical, but ends up counterproductive.

The take-home message here is that when you stress your body by not feeding it regularly, you leave yourself vulnerable to slip-ups that may seem justified and innocent but do a disservice to you and your goals. The trick is to plan for times when you can’t stop for a full meal by making sure you have something available to pop in your mouth. Otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of your irrational appetite as your goals fade to a faint speck on the horizon.

If you watch only one video this year, let it be this one. In “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”, Robert H. Lustig, MD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California San Francisco, beautifully illustrates the dangers of sugar, specifically fructose, identifying its role in the obesity epidemic (and it’s a HUGE one), describing how the body metabolizes it (and not in the way you’d like it to) and providing motivation for getting it out of your life. Lustig does an exceptional job of breaking down the biochemistry into lay terms. If you’re not ready to kick your soda and sugar habit after watching his lecture, you obviously weren’t paying attention.

More about this in a future post.