In the past twenty or thirty years it seems that Americans have become hyper-involved with food. We spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about it and planning how to eat it. Food has become an entertainment rather than a pleasurable form of sustenance. I believe that most of us don't even realize how involved we truly are. How did this happen?
We live in a culture that puts us into an extremely heightened contact with food. Here's one simple example: before 1950, most groceries were bought from small, local stores. Shopping was done largely from day to day and choices were minimal. The first supermarkets built in the 50s and 60s put us in contact with about 10,000 items during each shopping trip. Huge on-site parking lots made it possible to cart large loads of food home thus assuring that we would be exposed to lots more food items every day and on our own shelves. By 2006, the average number of items in a supermarket had quadrupled to 45,000 making a simple stop for milk an exercise is food immersion.
All of these new food items were forced to differentiate themselves in order to generate sales. They continue to do this by advertising, both in the media and on their own labels. They also do this by paying for an increased share of our awareness through placement in prime spots on supermarket shelves. Essentially, food forces us to pay attention at every turn.
As large amounts of food made their way into our lives for the first time, industrialization made it easier to take advantage of a growing interest in eating more and eating in more variety. Fast food, convenience stores, and chain restaurants all made their appearance. As David Kessler describes in The End of Overeating, food manufacturers soon figured out ways to make flavors that were more alluring and addictive.
We were seduced. A culture devoted to food interest soon sprung up in the face of increased consumption. For the first time chefs became celebrities, whole television channels were devoted to eating, and endless magazine and newspaper articles were devoted to recipes.
Unless you are 55 years old or more, you are unlikely to remember that this food environment represents an enormous shift from what it had been not very long ago. And we can hardly call it progress. The new oversaturation has generated an unprecedented amount of food obsession with a particularly worrisome twist: younger people who have only known our current food environment don't see it as dangerous. To them, it seems normal. If they are growing fat and getting ill, it must be their fault, not that of the environment. All we have to do is look at our skyrocketing diabetes and obesity rates to see how deadly this assumption is.
It's been my observation that those who learn how to maintain lost weight are usually those who are able to disengage and put a healthy distance between themselves and today's food environment. Essentially, they become less involved, less able to be stimulated. They do this by eating actual food (not fake food from packages) in consistent, reproducible ways. They cook less, bake less, spend less time thrilling to the menu of the newest restaurant, and fewer minutes watching what I call "food porn": television shows that are built around food and show lots of hyperstimulatory images of food.
Food Involvement is very hard to break and is often the reason that dieters regain their weight. After weight loss, most people go through what I call the "Bargaining Phase". These are the days and months when new maintainers try to find a way around an essential truth: that they must abandon the SAD (standard American diet) if they want to stay thin. Bargaining goes something like this: "I'm sure that I can keep this weight off if I just exercise more." "I won't have a problem if I'm more moderate than I used to be." "I'll be able to eat out and have whatever i want as long as I'm "good" on other days." "There are no bad foods, just as long as I only have a little." Or, in my practice: "Dr. Berkeley is crazy. I don't really have to give up all those things."
Bargainers have what I call a high "Food Involvement Quotient". And how could they not? Being raised in our American food environment, they have been saturated with food for a lifetime and have come to rely on eating for a large part of their pleasure.
Those who have made a food conversion have managed to break the pattern. In my book, I reproduce some of the daily menus of successful maintainers quoted in People Magazine's "Half Their Size" series. Their meals consist of unadorned fare like handfuls of nuts, a few shrimp and steamed vegetables and the like. Awhile back, I wrote about the diet of Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek , who ate simple fruits, veggies and protein while training to win the gold medal. Jack LaLanne , who died recently in his late 90s and was a highly successful advocate for health, ate a spartan, Primarian style diet. Yesterday's news featured an Associated Press article on the world' oldest Type 1 diabetic. For 85 years this man has carefully controlled his diet eating small amounts of real foods that are extremely low in sugar. This dietary approach , consistently applied, has enabled him to ward off the complications of one of our deadliest diseases. These are people over whom the SAD (standard American diet) has lost power.
Perhaps you can make the case that clean-eating people are obsessed with food, just in a different way. It's true that eating healthily requires attention but it's more of a defensive attention. Non-SAD eaters must remain wary of falling prey to the siren song of the food culture. It's a strong magic and no one is completely immune.
What is your Food Involvement Quotient? Take this quiz and find out.
Your FIQ 1. Are you constantly on the look out for new eating experiences? 2. If a new restaurant opens in your area, would trying it out be a top priority? 3. Do you have a subscription to a cooking magazine or do you frequently purchase one? 4. Do you routinely watch the Food Channel or other food related television? 5. Are you frequently looking for new recipes and new ways to prepare the food you eat? 6. Do you frequently blog, twitter or post on facebook about food or what you are eating? 7. Is the subject of food, restaurants or cooking a frequent topic of conversation with friends? 8. Do you believe that you have a weight problem because you are weak, lack willpower or have a metabolic problem and that if you were different you could control food? 9. Do you control weight by trying to be "good" on most days and "treating" yourself on others? 10. Do you long to try the latest version of your favorite sweet? (ice cream, cookies, cake, etc?) 11. Is it impossible to imagine a birthday or celebration without cake and does that cake seem harmless because you "deserve" it? 12. Do you frequently buy food on impulse because it looks good or the label is alluring? 13. Are other pleasures significantly less pleasurable if you remove the food? (For example: going to the movies, watching sports, being with friends)
Result Key: Your Food Involvement Quotient
If you answered Yes to 5 questions or less: Your FIQ is low and your ability to lose and maintain weight is high. Modern food has become less of a part of your life which means you have the opportunity for real change.
If you answered Yes to 6-8 questions: You have a moderate FIQ. You are still very involved in the world of modern food. While you may want to get out from under, you are not sure how to do it.
If you answered Yes to 9 to 13 questions: Your FIQ is high which means that you are very involved with food. Because food is still so seductive for you, this is likely making weight loss and maintenance impossible.
Every one of us has an involvement with food. The degree of involvement, however, impacts on our ability to remain healthy. Each one of us faces the challenge of learning to see the modern food world as it really is: supremely unhealthy, capable of seriously cutting your life short, capable of robbing you of the joy of living through obesity and related disease, a killer that takes hundreds of thousands of American lives each year. This reality is tough to see and tougher to hold in our minds because we live in an ether that constantly feeds us very different messages. "Food is fun." "Food is pleasure". "Food is a hobby" and most damaging, "Food is harmless if you only know how to control it." These messages are nothing more than a form of hypnosis.
In my next post: Tips on disengaging from the pack and lowering your Food Involvement Quotient.