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Our uncontrollable American appetites

Posted Jun 22 2010 12:00am
What does the BP oil spill have to do with your waistline?

A lot, says this article in last weekend’s New York Times magazine. The federal deregulation that paved the way for the Gulf disaster, not to mention Hurricane Katrina, the Wall Street meltdown, and the collapse of the housing market, is inseparable from our failure to control our own personal behavior, at least according to the Times.

Blame our instant-gratification culture. We’ve spent the past few decades indulging our human tendencies to overeat, overspend, and otherwise give in to our impulses. You know that internal governing mechanism that’s supposed to control our appetites? The article calls it “cognition”; elsewhere I’ve read that this capability is located in the prefrontal cortex of your brain. You might think of it as common sense. Whatever you call it, we’ve given it an extended leave of absence.

It’s no coincidence that obesity has increased - for what is obesity, say the experts, but a disorder of self-dysregulation?

Interesting theory, but I’m not totally sold. You see, to equate overeating with a lack of impulse control is missing half the picture.

With most impulsive behaviors - drinking, shopping, or video gaming, for instance - the user becomes addicted to a pleasurable state of mind, whether it’s calmness, euphoria, or the thrill of the chase.

Eating is a lot more complicated. Food can create all those pleasurable mind states, yes, but food is also something you physically need. You’re addicted to food, or more precisely, the nutrients in food, the way you’re addicted to oxygen.

Trying to self-regulate your appetite when you’re hungry is like trying to hold your breath. Mind over matter? Ha! Your body wins every time.

My hunch is that the climbing rate of obesity in recent years is at least partly a result of our overabundance of crappy food. We’re all eating more because there’s less nutrition in our food, and our bodies are trying to make up for it. Dieting just makes the problem worse. When you’re not getting enough of something, cutting back is not a good solution. That’s why self-control is ultimately doomed to fail.

So, yes: the economic and environmental disasters of the recent past have been a wake-up call. It’s time for us to quit indulging our appetites for cheap oil and limitless consumer goods.

But when it comes to food, we’ve actually been living in a state of deprivation, if you think in terms of quality, not quantity. Self-discipline hasn’t worked, so how about if we focus our efforts on improving the nutritional value of our food supply?
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