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Common Sense and the Diet Mentality

Posted Apr 04 2012 12:00am

You may know with some precision how many calories you consume in a given meal and how many you burn in a half-hour of exercise. You probably know how many Weight Watchers points you’re allowed, and you’re aware that there are nine calories in a gram of fat and fifteen calories in a teaspoon of sugar. But do you need to know all that information in order to eat a healthy diet? After two-hundred-thousand years of human evolution, and only about a century of modern science, not to mention a mere decade of having that information literally at our fingertips, we’ve done pretty well surviving as a species without knowing these things. So does it really make sense that simply because we now have this information available, we have to use it in order to guide our bodies toward staying healthy?

Even if you agree that it isn’t really necessary to have all this information in order to eat well, you might think that since we do have it, we must be benefiting from it by eating better. Sadly, you would be wrong. Instead of eating better, obesity rates in this country have risen at an alarming rate. As recently as nineteen eighty-five, no American state had an obesity rate greater than fifteen percent. Today, just twenty-five years later, not one state has an obesity rate of less than twenty percent. One-third of adults and twenty percent of children and adolescents in the United States are classified as obese. It is the number one risk factor for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, which have also risen dramatically over the past twenty-five years. So in reality, it seems we’re somehow doing a worse job managing our diets and health now than we did before we had all of this detailed nutritional information available!

You may wonder, what’s the harm on an individual level? Why should I be concerned if some people choose to be more precise in measuring what they eat or obsessively count calories in their efforts to lose weight? The problem is that relying on a belief that scientific precision is required to do something as basic to human nature as eating makes it very easy to find yourself doing something “wrong” on a regular basis. And when one takes a hard line approach to dieting, or doing anything that requires self-discipline, a recurrent sense of failure can soon convince you that you are trying to accomplish the impossible. Then it becomes too easy to feel hopeless, to say “what’s the use?” and just give up making any effort at all.

So it does not seem coincidental to me that alongside these statistics about what have now become the new norms for diet and health, emotional eating has also become the coping mechanism of choice for dealing with stress. It is the most common of all eating disorders. It affects almost half of all adult women who have any type of eating disorder, and one-third of all people who diet describe themselves as compulsive eaters. That’s because when not dieting feels like you’re giving up on the effort to lose weight, then eating in a more healthy way is not the alternative to dieting; instead, eating in an unhealthy way is the alternative. How to find that middle way is, in this sense, the real focus of this blog.

For this and other reasons that I will explain in more detail, there is only one rule concerning eating that I feel very strongly about: namely, that we shouldn’t have to follow strict rules of eating in order to be healthy. That doesn’t mean that you discard all of your common-sense caution. On the contrary, I believe that common sense should be your main guide that determines your choices and behavior.

My concern is with tendency to be overly cautious about everything you put in your mouth, which in our culture is determined by anything but common sense. Relying on the collective wisdom of diet “experts” leads us to question the kind of sensible decision-making process that has guided human food consumption forever. This has been replaced with the notion that in order to eat in a healthy way, we must count calories, weigh servings, and banish entire food groups, whether it’s sugar, fat, or carbohydrates. This does not qualify as common sense.

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