The Obesity Debate: Part 3

In Part 1, I talked about the analysis in the medical journal The Lancet about the “increasingly polarized” debate on what is causing the rise in obesity rates. In Part 2, I discussed how the modern food environment exploits our individual biological, psychological and social/economic vulnerabilities in ways that undermines out ability to eat in a way that helps us feel well and enjoy good health (regardless of weight).

Today, I’m going to focus on the home food environment, and the workplace food environment as well (for people who work outside the home).

In one of the articles in The Lancet’s series on obesity, “Smart food policies for obesity prevention,” they discuss how our environments are central to our ability to make changes to our eating habits, because the food environment is a sort of intermediary our learned food preferences and our actual eating behaviors. This means:

  • If you prefer certain foods (whether highly processed snack foods or vegetables), and you have these foods around you, it makes it really easy to eat these foods.
  • If you prefer highly processed snack foods, but your food environment includes none of these foods but does include lots of veggies, your food preferences can change in response.

According to the article, even when people want to eat well, lack of access to healthy food is an obstacle. They mean this more in terms of the broader food environment (as with food deserts), but I also see it in terms of the home/work food environments. I see how much many of my patients struggle with improving their nutrition and eating habits when:

  • Their house isn’t stocked with healthy foods.
  • Their house and or workplace contains their “trigger” foods (usually sweets and snack foods).
  • They don’t plan healthy meals (both dinners and work lunches), so they are susceptible to the temptations of (often less-than-healthy) takeout or simply grazing on what’s available because they’re starving!

I can’t count how many patients and clients I’ve worked with who allow their trigger foods into the house because their spouse, partner or kids like those foods and aren’t joining in on the healthy eating journey (“It wouldn’t be fair to them if I didn’t let them have those foods in the house!”). But the simple fact is that most people (especially people who struggle with disordered eating), engage in some degree of stress-based or emotional eating. Thinking that willpower will keep you out of the bag of potato chips or the carton of ice cream when you come home after having a crappy day is not just naive, but it’s setting yourself up to feel like a failure. (I say “feel like” because you’re not truly a failure, you were vulnerable and your food environment exploited those vulnerabilities.)

It’s not that these foods are off limits (no food should be off limits unless you are allergic to it or it otherwise directly contributes to a real health problem), but it can be easier to enjoy them in a balanced, moderate way if large quantities of them aren’t always close at hand. With that food for thought, I am stepping down off my soapbox (for now)!