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Societal Impact on Eating and Weight

  • Eating

If you’ve struggled to improve your eating and health to little avail, you may feel as if you’ve failed at the process. What you may not realize is that you’ve not been making this attempt in a vacuum. Yes, there may be internal factors that make it difficult for you to eat “normally,” but there are also external ones that may be undermining success.

Health writer Jane Brody, describes these factors in Why, Oh Why, Are We So Fat? (Sarasota Herald-Tribune 9/20/11). Aside from wishing the article’s title said “Unhealthy” rather than “Fat,” I find Brody’s assessment of cultural changes affecting eating and activity level right on. It’s important to recognize how society has shaped us—as well as to understand how we’ve shaped ourselves—because there are substantial overt and covert external factors impacting our attitudes about and behavior around food.

Brody asserts that Americans began to gain weight steadily in the 1970s due to eating out more frequently: restaurant food is more calorie- and fat-laden, larger-portioned, and often more exotic tasting than a simple, home-cooked meal. She cites less walking and more car-dependence as leading to reduced activity, and TV commercials bombarding our psyches to eat this and that as visually stimulating appetite. Even TV watching itself—we used to spend more time outdoors—has helped create a sedentary lifestyle. Then there’s the contribution of the food industry which targeted the burgeoning market of women entering the workforce with little time to prepare food at home by pushing mass-produced convenience foods high in salt, sugar, and carbs. Remember, these are the foods that trigger the release of dopamine in our brains and create cravings for more of them. The food industry knew exactly how to get us hooked.

Brody also proposes solutions. She offers four interventions from a report co-written by Steven L. Gortmaker, a Harvard School of Public Health sociologist. First, ban TV advertising of high-sugar/high-fat foods, noting that banning tobacco advertising from TV helped decrease smoking rates. Second, levy a 10% tax on unhealthy foods and drinks, aimed at reducing their consumption by children. Third, label food with an easily recognizable coding on a nutritional continuum (ie, green, yellow, red). Fourth, increase and expand school-based programs focusing on eating healthfully, exercising more, and watching TV less.

All of the above factors may have conspired to derail your eating, and it’s important to recognize them. How you get yourself back on track, however, is now in your hands.