How The American Food Industry Has Redefined “Normal”
I’m not one to use scare tactics, or to exaggerate the commitment that a healthy lifestyle requires. My clients know that I am on an even keel. I didn’t freak out about What the Health, I don’t push specific diets or demonize certain foods, and I’m in the Marion Nestle school of “Nutritional basics don’t go out of style” (my own words).
However, I do get worked up about one aspect of the American diet and food industry…
…And that is the “new normal” that has somehow been created by our American food culture. Who is to blame? Lobbyists in Washington? Big food politics? The marketing of food to children? Depictions of food and drink in the media? It’s a complex portrait and many culprits could be pinpointed in various ways, but the bottom line is that the status quo of our diet is problematic.
Challenging the Status Quo
One of the challenges that my clients face is that they must confront long-held ideas and expectations about food, habits, anxiety, and happiness.
It’s not so much that improving snacking practices or increasing vegetable intake is that difficult – in fact, I’m sure pretty much anyone is capable of improving their habits with the proper support. However, the real difficulty lies in re-contextualizing food, changing your beliefs, and transforming your relationship with eating.
Now, that’s tough.
Here are the five most problematic myths that I have seen my clients overcome to achieve great results (mind, body, and soul), and the way that you can re-frame your perspective on each for your own life:
Myth #1: Everything should be hyper-tasty.
One of our internal beliefs about food – backed up by our own survival instinct – is that all foods are supposed to be extremely sweet, moist, and/or salty. This is part of a natural urge to consume as many calories as possible in order to stave off hunger in times of scarcity, but in our current culture, that time of famine is likely not around the corner in the U.S., and those extra calories don’t do us any favors.
Instead of using a dash of half-and-half in coffee, we use a flavored creamer that has a dubious ingredient list a mile long. Instead of having simple yogurt with fresh berries mixed in, we have a flip-top Chobani that is packed with sugar. Instead of eating a sweet potato in all of its natural, earthy goodness, we order sweet potato fries or have a sweet potato pie. When we inundate our senses with these intensely sweet and salty foods, we lose our sensitivity to the original flavors, textures, and nuances of less-processed foods, and we become adjusted to high-octane, sense-flooding eating experiences.
Secondly, the consequence of these highly-flavored (and often highly-processed) foods is that they trigger overeating. Foods rich in salt, fat, and sugar are not only inherently high in calories (often with little nutritional benefit), but they also create the desire to eat more. More simple, fresh foods, on the other hand, promote a feeling of satiety and fullness.
This doesn’t mean you need to embrace a “raw” diet or totally eliminate salt. It just means that most of the time, you can step back the level of processing that your food has undergone, by eating foods that are closer to their original versions. Examples include fresh fruit and berries, unsweetened yogurts and other dairy products, and lightly steamed, sautéed, or baked vegetables.
Here’s the way to re-frame, so that you don’t feel like you’re depriving yourself:
If I enjoy something less often, I can have the ‘real’ version. But in between these infrequent treats, I need to build my sensitivity to the natural flavors of foods with less sugar, salt, and fat.”
Myth #2: One change (or superfood, or fad) will fix everything.
When we become overly focused on one piece of the nutritional puzzle, we lose sight of the big picture, and I know that my tendency – when I’m caught up in a fad – is to start thinking in an extremely black-and-white way.
But when it comes to nutrition, there is no panacea.
I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s recent episodes of his podcast Revisionist History, which discussed the use of vegetable oils versus animal fats throughout the 20th century. Fear of animal fats, rather than guiding people to make measured and sober changes to their fat intake, caused a mass replacement of animal fats with vegetable oils in industrial foods. The great irony, as pointed out by the podcast, is that the serving sizes have greatly increased, and that many of our processed foods are now saturated in vegetable oil. What was originally a potentially good idea was overwrought by black-and-white thinking and ended up having the reverse of the intended effect.
A small amount of animal fat consumed periodically is harmful to hardly anyone. Copious amounts of vegetable oils ingested frequently over a long period of time – deemed “safe” – are harmful to most.
This all boils down to one important point: when we make food decisions out of fear, we typically don’t make sound decisions. When we are fear-based, we are motivated by mindlessly relieving our anxiety about nutrition and mortality, and we don’t make the changes that could actually make a difference. We want the easiest possible answer, and – guided by the food industry – we can make decisions that are actually worse for us.
Here is a good way to reframe anxiety-based decisions around food (if you’ve recently seen What the Health, this could be helpful):
Is this superfood/change/fad actually healthier for me? What information am I using to make this decision? Is the replacement worse than the original? Why am I making this decision?”
Myth #3: Drinking a lot is normal and urbane.
One of the most pervasive cultural influences that causes people – especially women – to consume an unusually higher number of calories is drinking alcohol.
The calorie equation is simple: alcohol itself is rich in calories, and people often eat without inhibition when they are even slightly tipsy.
But why people drink, and how much they drink, is more complicated. When I look at the big picture of alcohol intake, what I often see is a high level of unconscious consumption that affects health, but is enabled (and encouraged) by the media and food industry. The threshold for “binge” drinking is lower than most people realize – having four servings of alcohol at a dinner is technically “binge” drinking for a woman. You don’t have to black out – it can be as innocent as a pre-dinner cocktail with a few glasses of wine at dinner (portion sizes are often overly-large, and one “drink” could actually be 2-3 servings of alcohol).
It’s complicated. But the “new normal” is that it is classy and urbane to drink. And not just drink, but drink frequently and in response to a variety of normal social situations (I love Kristi Coulter’s essay “Enjoli,” about women and alcohol – take a look!). It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it is quite normal to be a teetotaler – in the United States, roughly 30% of people (I’m in this group) do not drink at all, and even more people have less than one drink per week. But the top 10% of drinkers more than make up for it (drinking more than 10 servings per day).
It’s this top 10% that sets the pace, unfortunately. My clients sometimes want to drink less, but feel disempowered and/or awkward, because heavy drinking is so socially normal. It’s easy to think that drinking less (or not at all) would put you in the minority, instead of the middle. But it is surprisingly common for Americans to abstain.
Here is the simplest way to look at it: no health recommendations urge drinking more, and there is no consequence for drinking less. If you are concerned about your level of intake, you can always start by drinking less and seeing how you feel. Many of my clients end up dramatically cutting their level of consumption, and feel unbelievably better as a result.
Here’s the best way to re-frame alcohol intake:
Drinking less certainly wouldn’t be harmful, and I could experiment with a period of abstinence, or simply decrease my intake by alternating drinks with other beverages, or drinking less frequently each week.”
Myth #3: We don’t have time to sit down to eat undistracted.
Eating while distracted (screens, driving, standing, walking, etc.) has utterly transformed our relationship to food.
Not to over-idealize the Italians (stop me, please), but one thing that I am always struck by when I visit Italy is that they stay still and talk while they eat. To-go cups are simply not a thing in Italy. You drink your coffee at the cafe, and then you leave. You eat your food at the restaurant, and then you leave. The U.S. culture of to-go food, to-go drinks, and on-the-run (and on-the-drive) eating with disposable containers has not taken hold in some other countries, and the difference is palpable.
Contrary to what we may believe, we do have time to sit and eat, in one place, without multi-tasking. Getting more present with our food can have incredible health benefits.
Re-frame your tendency to wolf down your food in transit (or while working) by saying to yourself:
I have time to slow down, enjoy my food, and focus on eating (and eating alone) for at least five minutes for each meal.”
Myth #5: You can’t get through the day without snacks.
While frequency of eating (and size of meals) could vary from person to person and still fall in the healthy range, I see a general assumption that snacking is required.
Snacking isn’t negative in and of itself, but I often find that my clients (and I) succeed in adhering to a calorie goal when they don’t snack, and stick to 3-4 meals per day. The problem is that we often snack out of boredom or restlessness or stress, not hunger.
If you find that you cannot make it through the day without snacking, the first place I would look is your actual meals. What are you eating? Are your meals substantial, or are they literal recipes for failure? For example, if your breakfast is a muffin, you will certainly want a snack by 10 AM. But if your breakfast is eggs with mixed vegetables and toast (or a substantial protein smoothie), you will probably be fine until lunch.
If you do need to snack (there are a myriad of reasons, blood sugar being a very legitimate one), then I recommend packing your snack, rather than grabbing it on the go or indulging in something at the office. Make your snack vegetable sticks with hummus, or fruit with nuts, or some other nutritious and satisfying mini-meal.
But if you can, try to avoid snacking – especially snacking-while-working – as much as possible. It often increases overall calorie intake without a commensurate increase in energy and/or satiety. Address the composition of your meals instead, so that you can last from meal to meal without substantial snacking.
Here’s the way to re-frame snacking so that it fits your fitness plan:
I can always eat when I’m hungry, but I can also make sure that my meals are better balanced or more substantial, and I can make sure to pack snacks so that what I eat between meals is healthy instead of mindless.”
Can you think of any other food myths that have been pervasive and influential? Let me know in the comments!