This was previously published on Tin Foil Toque.
What’s wrong with the way Americans eat?
The way most Americans eat, and increasingly, the way more people in the world eat, is SAD. SAD is an acronym for the “Standard American Diet,” a generalization of how people in the most highly industrialized nations eat. Depending on who you ask, the problems with the SAD may include:
- too much meat
- too much fat
- vegetable oil
- refined flour
- refined sweeteners
- foods denatured by excessive heat
- not enough plant-based foods
- not enough fiber
However, not every one of these factors has a clear relationship to how much energy storage we carry in our bodies, or to our health. The changes to our diet that have correlated with the obesity epidemic have not been in how much meat we eat, but in how cheap and highly available vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup have become in our diets since the early 1980s. The Standard American Diet is undoubtedly a highly processed diet, relying on the produce of conventionally raised plants grown in depleted soil, genetically modified, and grown with pesticides; animals raised in abusive conditions, on unnatural diets; and industrial chemicals. The SAD is not natural: it’s manufactured using modern technology, and the resulting diet is unlike anything we ate in any other period of human history.
The Standard American Diet is made of cheaply produced foods that have been modified to appeal to our senses so that we will buy more of them. They are a product first, not an essential of life. Purveyors of SAD food want you to keep buying their products. Your wellness is not their primary concern.
For most of human history, the ability to store fat in times of trouble was an advantageous feature that helped us survive, not a defect that threatened our well-being. The Standard American Diet takes advantage of loopholes in our feedback systems of satiety and satiation, rather than being optimized to most healthfully feed our human bodies and psyches. The SAD provides much more calorie-dense food than any we naturally had access to through most of history, but is otherwise nutritionally inadequate. People living on food like this will tend to eat too many calories, because no matter how much bad food a person eats, the body never gets its other nutritive needs properly satisfied.
What’s wrong with Standard American Diet food?
A huge percentage of people in America, and increasingly, the rest of the world, are on weight loss diets, either now or at some point in their lives. Even those of us who aren’t on a diet right now often have some idea of what would be a healthy diet, and how close our own diet is to that goal. “Diet food” is very often as bad or even worse than what it replaces, because its qualities are based on faulty assumptions about what causes people to gain or lose weight, and on a highly simplistic view of the relationship between weight and health. Our concepts of diet for weight loss are punitive, classist, and feed a cycle of shame that precludes healthy attitudes about our bodies and what we eat.
Willpower is not infinite. Many diet foods suggest that they take the willpower out of the equation by providing a technological marvel such as “fat free cream cheese” or “sugar free, calorie free sweetened beverages.” Of all of the tricks that industrial food plays on our senses, diet food plays the worst tricks of all, by pretending to be more food than it is, with thickeners, added flavors, and artificial fats and sweeteners simulating calories. The reason these tricks can be played at all is because we have two feedback systems in our bodies for regulating food intake: one for satiety and one for satiation. Satiation has a quicker response time, quick enough to tell us to stop eating. It’s a heuristic for satiety, which takes longer to report to the body, because food has to be at least partially digested and absorbed for the body to know for sure what it contains and what the body may still need.
Diet science is junk science. The reason all of these tricks are played is a belief in the so-called “calories in, calories out” model of body weight that, like the Body Mass Index, is made up of some numbers that make bad superstition look like good science.
The BMI is the calculated ratio of your height over your weight. The CDC claims that it is a reliable indicator for most people, yet this ratio doesn’t actually tell you anything about an individual’s actual body mass. It makes the assumption that not just most people, but you, specifically, will have the average ratio of body fat to lean mass for people of your height and weight. It also assumes that, even if we knew what your lean to fat body mass ratio is, that it would tell you something important about your health. Clearly, this is all bullshit. Even people who’ve never heard of Health at Every Size can see that a highly active athlete and a couch potato can have the same BMI, and enjoy vastly different states of health.
The “calories in, calories out” model presumes both that we can accurately know how much nourishment you get from your food, and how much you expend. Even under laboratory conditions, we have isolated a number of factors that change how much of different nutrients people absorb from their food, from how palatable the food is to whether the person has an innate inability to properly digest the food. In the real world, other factors affect how much we eat, and these methods are studiously applied to us every time we eat at the home of the endless soup bowl. We’ve only just begun to understand the role of our gut flora in nutrient absorption, and that each of us has a different makeup of the many species of bacteria that live in our bodies and without which we would not exist. We know for sure that not everyone gets the same benefit from each food, each time they eat it. Calories are measured by burning a food to ash, not by observing their effect in human bodies, and not in yours, particularly. This measurement on the “Nutrition Facts” label doesn’t guarantee that the food in your package precisely matches the sample that was measured, or that you will absorb the nutrients listed. Being able to accurately measure not just the potential nutrition you ingest, but what you actually absorb and how your body uses it, is beyond our abilities to scientifically measure.
Therefore, we can conclude that there are healthy ways of eating that are older than our concept of the kilocalorie. Luckily, we still have our bodies to tell us what to eat, how much, and when, as long as we don’t game the system with industrial foods, including diet foods.
How weight-loss dieting damages health
Industrial food can never be the basis of a healthy diet. It isn’t just that food that is manufactured is not fresh, or that it’s unbalanced compared with what we evolved to eat. It costs society more to allow industry to “add value” to food, including allowing industry to add the value of “diet versions” of the same foods, than it would be to ban all of it and revert to earlier ways of feeding people: fresh food, grown locally and prepared to meet personal tastes and requirements. The costs aren’t all in one place, and many of the costs are born by our bodies, which labor under the sufferings caused by bad food.
Chronic stress levels keep cortisol levels high, which drives us to eat, especially starchy foods. Dieting is a willpower-enforced famine condition. It’s profoundly unnatural and very difficult to sustain. It is a chronic condition of not getting enough calories, of baiting-and-switching the satiety/satiation feedback systems in the body. The stress of chronic malnourishment and exercise of rigid willpower drives up cortisol levels, which only serves to increase the drive to eat carbohydrate-rich foods. Eventually, the body asserts its needs for food, and the dieter falls off the diet.
Instead of realizing the actual factors that are causing the epidemic of obesity—an increasingly industrialized food chain, stagnating quality of life, increased stress—we persist in this notion that systemic problems should be fixed with individual willpower. Willpower is like spoons, or socks: we don’t all have a lot of them, some of us have to make careful arrangements not to run out, and the people who are hurt the most are the ones most in need and have the least. Asking people already laboring under the burdens of an unhealthy society to increase their personal expense to fix the same health problems that chronic stress and injustice cause is victim-blaming, judgmental, and unfair. It also doesn’t work.
What is really making us fat
So we know that calorie-counting doesn’t work for eating. “Calories out” is just as fuzzy a number as “calories in,” and for the same reasons: it’s practically impossible to know exactly how much energy a person expends in an activity, even one that has been measured in other people, because we differ metabolically. One example of the differences among people’s metabolisms is that some of us who may be described as metabolically tending toward obesity burn glycogen, which is our quick go-to energy source in the body, at much higher rates than people whose metabolisms do not incline them toward obesity. Not only do those of us with this metabolic tendency burn through our glycogen faster while at rest, but also when exercising. Additionally, we may be less “metabolically flexible,” meaning that our bodies are less able to shift to burning energy from fat stores than the “metabolically lean.” This makes it perceptibly more difficult for some people to do exercise.
Another factor that tends to keep people fat is one of insulin resistance. Eating a diet that delivers huge jolts of sugar to the bloodstream, several times a day, makes the body’s cells resistant to accepting insulin. Since insulin is what brings energy to our cells, we’re starved and exhausted at the cellular level. The energy goes into fat stores, not into the cells that need it.
Historically, when humans were chronically stressed, it was in conditions of famine and other physical hardship, and having the ability to use less energy and store it in our bodies, instead, was an advantage. The world we live in has so changed that this stress response is no longer a helpful adaptation. This is most evident among the people with the least power to make non-mainstream choices. People who are poor, abused, lack transportation, live in food deserts, can’t cook for themselves, are institutionalized, have no safe places to exercise, live with trauma and other chronic, painful, and debilitating conditions, work in unsafe conditions, and live with other modern stresses, are the hardest hit by the effects of industrial food. Our modern, efficient food delivery system cures energy starvation, but instead causes diseases of overconsumption and malnourishment.
The effects of metabolic inflexibility and insulin resistance make it increasingly difficult to exit a spiral of sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Add chronic stress, limited food choices, and few socially acceptable ways for fat people to exercise, and it’s easy to see how modern life makes people fat: not because we lack willpower, but because it’s unreasonable to expect people to expend energy as if it’s unlimited, to overcome the obstacles placed there by the same institutions that are supposed to make health easier to achieve.
Eating well is for every person
Health isn’t measurable through a BMI. Health is a subjective measure of one’s well-being and includes physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors. It’s not just your risk of developing a serious illness, but how well you feel each day.
The dietary model of willpower and calories doesn’t work for weight loss. More industrial food, harmful misinformation about eating and health, and victim-blaming exacerbate the health problems that industrial food has wrought on society: malnutrition, overeating, guilt, poor esteem and health. The Standard American Dieter’s Diet relies on the false science of calories and nutritionism, and the false assumption that willpower is an infinite resource. It assumes that our systemic problem is actually just a lot of individuals with willpower problems.
It suits the diet industry for their diets to convince you of their efficacy, but continually fail you. A beguiling promise that makes you their convert, and their consumer, is a cash cow. No one stands to make much money encouraging people to eat home-cooked meals together with their families. But everyone in society stands to benefit from increased well-being, which is why public health is properly publicly funded work, not contracted out to McDonald’s. It’s time to remember what the covenant of civilization is supposed to be for: not to make a few rich, but to give everyone a level of freedom and security in pursuit of their natural rights.
The cycle of bingeing, starving, and failed attempts to gain control over one’s life through willpower, is bad for every aspect of one’s health: self-image, nutrition, and energy levels. What is needed is not more willpower for fat people, but a unified model, universally embraced, of competent eating that includes a healthier attitude about food, treating food as a right and a pleasure instead of drudgery, more complete knowledge of how our bodies work, and a better food system that actually meets our needs for health first, rather than the corporation’s bottomless pit of desire for profit.
Couple hiding behind pizza boxes courtesy of Shutterstock