Truth be told, I am one of those adherents forever swept up by the latest food craze. Especially where exercise is concerned. A single jog has me scouring supermarket shelves for goji berries, crunching away on chalky chia seeds, guzzling electrolyte-ed neon drinks by the drum. Heck, I’d harpoon wild salmon if I thought it’d help. Not that I know the first thing about spearfishing, or salmon for that matter. I’ve read it’s good for you, something about the high-quality protein and omega-3s, as are chia seeds, loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and calcium. And so I feign delight as little black flecks decorate my teeth.
Though in the dash for nutritionally perfect Kamut Dark Chocolate Energy Bars, it feels as if something more than just ambrosia goes missing—Kale/Flax Seed smoothies are not delicious no matter what any magazine says. And that void seems related to the phrase “good for you,” specifically the word good, which can’t help but imply its opposite: bad. The problem is these terms suggest moral preferences that act as integers in a crude health arithmetic. According to fitness blogger, Kale/Flax Seed smoothie (y) is good and if I (x) consume said concoction, I too am good. Thus:
x + y = GOOD
Logic dictates the following must be at least trueish:
x – y = less GOOD
By comparison, the glistening, brown sugar rubbed ribs (z) that I (x) devoured on Memorial Day can only be considered not good, i.e., bad:
x + z = BAD
Hence I am bad.
Even now the heap of bones I managed to amass on my plate causes me a level of shame I’m not ready to confront. No, I’d rather avoid it altogether and instead place my focus on things I know will bring me joy, like the crumble-top apple pie that whispers my name when I open the refrigerator. Avoidance is not ideal, but it sure is effective.
In fact, avoidance is the perfect coping mechanism for what many health experts refer to as the U.S.’s obesity epidemic, for without it the statistics may threaten our tranquility: two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese; obesity is linked to more than 60 chronic diseases; each year obesity related health costs us approximately $200 billion, nearly 21% of all medical costs nationwide, $2,741 higher per capita than “normal” weight individuals. Further, we now consume 31% more calories than we did 40 years ago, yet despite these truths, obesity numbers are forecast to continue climbing.
It is ironic, however, that while we appear to have perfected the art of avoidance, weight the concept continues to be a national obsession. We read about it in our books, we watch for signs of it in our beloved celebrities, the U.S. weight loss industry itself is valued around $60 billion, nearly $600 billion worldwide, a market specially designed to help us achieve something we tacitly know we must. But lo! crumble-top apple pie, why do you taunt me so?
In the battle between willpower and thinly sliced, sweetly spiced green apples, there can only be one victor.
If only it were that easy.
As heralded food writer and Food Inc. contributor Michael Pollan points out, the food of today is vastly different than that of yesteryear: “The [food industry] blames obesity on a crisis of personal responsibility, but when you’re engineering foods, you’re pressing our evolutionary buttons. The fact is we are hardwired to go for three tastes: salt, fat, and sugar.” And when that addictive mix joins a culture of celebratory eating (see Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, the religious holidays, sports broadcasts, birthdays, weddings, and even funerals), no wonder we find ourselves a few pounds north of doctor’s recommendation. It’s difficult to view food as fuel when what we’re eating accompanies every human emotion.
In spite of nefarious influences, I hesitate to place blame solely on such a nebulous group as the “food industry.” To be fair it is possible to change the body amid towering piles of salt, fat, and sugar. A person can exercise; were that not true, the gift that is Richard Simmons may never have sprinkled us with dance moves. Also, we do choose the foods we eat hence Jenny Craig. My gosh, I’m starting to sound like a food industry representative.
The trouble, I suppose, has to do with all the blaming. If I blame myself, I experience shame, and then follows avoidance, and we know where that ends, me head over heels in a flaky baked dessert. On the other hand, if I blame the industry, I surrender my agency; I am a mere marionette animated by a salty sweet ratio.
To this conundrum, MHCGM Community Support Service Director and bariatric surgery support group instructor Pete Costa may have an answer: “we must harness the power of mindfulness.”
In the six week Lifestyle Changes course he teaches, Costa stresses the importance of seeing weight management in the broader context of health management. Gone is avoidance inducing judgmental language, like good and bad, and in its stead Costa directs attention to the interplay between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The thinking according to Costa: “You can’t change what you don’t notice.”
Paramount to successful health management, and by extension weight, is to first identify our food related behaviors, and then thoughtfully, supportively pull back the veil on what lies beneath. Any number of emotions may contribute to over indulgence: grief, depression, joy. As is true of our thoughts; cognitive distortions have a funny way of undercutting actual progress, black-and-white thinking, for example, or mind reading, or catastrophizing even the slightest deviation to a crevasse the size of the Grand Canyon. And as we come to know our tendencies, there are plenty of ways to outwit those thoughts: by identifying the distortion, examining the evidence, defining terms, thinking in shades of grey, etc.
In the end, it’s about gaining control. Though the verb “gaining” may not go far enough. “Taking” control, “wresting,” putting it back where it belongs, within each and every one of us. We need not be little wooden puppets on taut sweet and salty strings. With mindfulness, food can become fuel again.
In fact, that goji berry version of me jerked down the organics aisle is not so different, tugged along on a tether of someone else’s construction. Why am I propelled so? Because some blogger proselytized in Times New Roman? Anyway, I grew up in Midwest—what the heck is a goji berry?
I suppose the lesson here is know thyself. And if you don’t, dare to make introductions. You might be surprised by whom you meet.