I guess it’s common knowledge by now that the food industry has created a monster of a problem. They did it by aggressively pursuing a market (that is, us), offering high fat, high sugar, high salt food that’s ready to eat. It is a technological marvel, if you think about it. I like to cook, and I spend a lot of time doing it, so I can appreciate the appeal ready-to-eat meals have for people who don’t like to cook, or the growing number of people who don’t know how to.
What people who don’t like or know how to cook may not realize is that many of the ready-to-eat foods don’t have a time or cost advantage over home-prepared foods—I’m thinking about a package of frozen sweet potato fries I recently tried. I’d ventured into the frozen food aisle looking for frozen lima beans and chanced across a series of fancy fried potato offerings. I bought a bag of seasoned frozen sweet potato fries.
Sweet potato fries are easy to make from scratch. You slice up sweet potatoes, toss them with oil and seasonings, and put them in the oven on high heat for 10 or 15 minutes. Simple. Very few ingredients. Pretty cheap, too. The frozen ones on the other hand are more expensive, have a lot of ingredients, most of them unpronounceable, and to a palate used to real food, they taste funny—greasy, mushy, and overly salty. But if I hadn’t had the experience of making my own with sea salt and some spicy Cajun seasoning, I might think they tasted good. And if kept on buying them—and the other offerings on the freezer shelf—I might be a candidate for addiction. Because that’s what the high fat, high sugar, high salt foods are designed for—producing a craving that will bring us back for more.
It’s a slippery slope, especially for hard working, busy families racing between work, child-care, the soccer field, etc., trying to figure out how to cram a full meal into that busy day. (I can attest to how hard it is to use your last bit of energy to put a meal on the table, only to hear the kids whine about having to eat vegetables.)
The food industry has some genius marketing people. But even if they didn’t have experts ready to craft the perfect selling points—who came up with the idea of putting a toy into a “happy” meal, anyway?—they have allies in our own physiology.
An over-simplification of the problem goes something like this: Cravings are a function of our biology, a result of evolution. In a world of scarce—and seasonal—resources, our ancestors who had cravings for nutritional powerhouses like sugar had a great advantage. And that “advantage” shows up today in their descendants—that’s us, right now, in this time of over-abundance of food.
All of us. And there are all kinds. People who have never had a problem because frankly they are not interested in food. Or people who never have a problem with overeating because they naturally monitor the food they eat and have no problem staying within a pound or two of their perfect weight, whatever that is. And others who maintain a perfect weight by obsessing over every bite and exercising every spare moment of the day. And at the other end of the spectrum are the folks who have never been able to reach a normal weight except by Herculean deprivation and who see-saw toward and away from that “normal” weight.
In between the few, naturally thin, attentive-to-their-bodies people (who aren’t reading this anyway), and the fully addicted, are the people who haven’t developed an addiction, but who’ve lost their ability to listen to their bodies’ natural instincts about exercise and food—how much they really need, or when they need it. There are many of us, in that in-between place.
Let me clarify: I am thankful that we are so fortunate, that we have access to such abundance. All we have to do is look at the news to realize how fortunate we are. But we do pay a price for that good fortune. The optimistically titled The End of Overeating by David Kessler, which I’ve mentioned before, is a great overview of the problem, if you want more information on the topic. Or read anything by Michael Pollan.
I believe there’s really only one thing we can do about this fix we are in. In this moment, in this place, we can accept where we are and love ourselves anyway. All of ourselves: body, mind, and spirit. I truly believe that’s the foundation upon which every step toward greater health and true wellbeing rests.
I believe that’s true for those who have lost touch with the body’s wisdom about what we need for sustenance, and those who are dealing with goad of those relentless cravings we call addiction. I believe that self-acceptance and self-care is the foundation we need to allow us to change our behavior, and ultimately banish those cravings and regain our innate wisdom about the body’s needs.
I don’t believe there’s any magic wand that can make the changes happen overnight. But I do believe the path begins where we are right now, that the first step is accepting who we are, accepting where we are, and loving ourselves anyway. With that first step, and with a clear focus on good health and wellbeing, I think the next steps on the path will appear—as if by magic.