How Modern American Society Undermines Healthy Eating

Eating to lose weight is simple in concept, but challenging in practice. In my article about including the occasional indulgence in your weight loss program, I wrote, “Eating is more than just an act of fueling the body for survival; it’s a multifaceted experience that relates to one’s culture, social sphere, and emotional wellbeing.” This (longer, multipart) article specifically explores the cultural component of eating, and partially explains how modern American society undermines healthy eating habits.

5 factors of modern American society that contribute to unhealthy eating:

1.) There is a hyper-availability of food

2.) Calorically dense foods are a modern invention

3.) Food corporation marketing

4.) Over-eating is a cultural norm

5.) Chronic stress can lead people to use food as a coping mechanism

Hyper-availability of Food

Food is available almost anywhere: your home, supermarkets, restaurants, fast-food joints, convenience stores, office vending machines, street vendors, and home delivery. On top of the hyper-availability of food, one is also subjected to the constant circulation of food-image advertisement in television, the internet, magazines, mail, and billboards. It’s difficult to avoid food, along with the images & ideas of it.

I’m not asserting that the abundance of food is a bad thing, because it is definitely not. Rather, I am asserting that it’s psychologically difficult to deal with the hyper-availability of food when the human mind has a powerful motivation to eat when food is available. Looking through the lens of evolutionary psychology, humans are motivated to eat when food is available, because attaining the next food source likely requires time and energy.

Throughout most of human history, food wasn’t nearly as available as it is now. Sure, food could be abundant in the natural environment during pre-agricultural times, but it had to be hunted and gathered.  Hunting and gathering are time-consuming and labor-intensive processes, in which the body must burn many calories in the attainment of food. Also, the kinds of foods that were hunted and gathered in prehistory were not like they are today (i.e. they were typically not very calorie-dense). You would not pick a 540 calorie Big Mac off a tree while wandering through the jungle, but rather something like a 50 calorie piece of fruit (I will describe calorie-dense foods in more detail in the next section). So in pre-modern times, you had to exercise to attain food, and the attained food had fewer calories per serving compared to its modern counterpart. In fact, “servings” didn’t even exist back then. You didn’t need servings. You ate food according to its availability. It was simple.  By its very nature, the hunter-gatherer style of eating didn’t allow for unhealthy weight gain.

But now, in modern times, food is dramatically more available and calorie-dense, making it challenging to moderate your daily caloric intake. It all boils down to the basic psychological concept of “if food is near you, you are more likely to eat it.” I am reminded of a simple and effective piece of weight loss advice, “if you don’t want to eat junk food when you’re home, don’t buy it.” However, outside the house is a whole other challenge.

The abundance of food is a double-edged sword. In one sense, it’s a wonderful thing that ensures nutrition and survival for many. In another sense, it’s making people sick. However, the abundance of food is not necessarily the problem. The problem derives from how American culture manages the abundance. It’s a complicated issue, and I will attempt to explain some more of it in the rest of this article. On a final note for this particular section, please consider the difference between “abundance” and “hyper-availability” of food.

Abundance = simply having a large supply of food

Hyper-availability = a way of managing a large supply of food

Calorie-dense Foods are a Modern Invention

In hunter-gatherer times, humans had no choice but to eat whole foods because that was all there was available. By its very nature, the hunter-gatherer diet prevented unhealthy weight gain. It’s hard to over-consume calories when you are on a whole food diet of meat, nuts, and vegetables.

Here’s why…

Whole foods typically have a greater content of water and fiber when compared to processed foods. Water and fiber make foods less calorie-dense, and they also contribute well to a sensation of fullness. Meat protein digests slowly due to its complex molecular structure. Nuts and seeds are primarily fat, and fat digests slowly because it has to go through a time-consuming digestion process called emulsification, which is essentially the splitting of fat globules into separate droplets. Nuts and seeds also contain fiber, which as we already know, contributes to a sensation of fullness. Leafy & green vegetables typically contain high levels of fiber, water, and micronutrients, but do not contain many absorbable calories due to their indigestible cellular structure. However, tuber & root vegetables tend to have more absorbable calories than their leafy & green siblings because tubers & roots contain a substantial amount of non-fibrous complex carbohydrate, which digests slowly due to its…well, complex molecular structure. The whole food diet of the hunter-gatherer is simple and, by its very nature, prevents unhealthy weight gain.

A quick summary of why whole foods help prevent unhealthy weight gain:

1.) They contain greater amounts of water and fiber, making them less calorie-dense but more filling

2.) Their more complex molecular structures take longer to digest, so they stay in the gut longer. This encourages a longer-lasting sensation of fullness.

Modern food choices have drifted far away from what was available in hunter-gatherer times because of the advanced technologies of agriculture, factory production, containerization, and transportation infrastructure. With all this technology, whole foods can be transformed into “food products” that are:

1.) Highly-processed, resulting in:
      a.) Lower levels of micro-nutrients
      b.) Lower levels of water and fiber
      c.) Simpler molecular structures that digest quickly

2.) Calorie-dense, due to:
      a.) Added sugars
      b.) Lower levels of water and fiber

3.) Hyper-available, due to:
      a.) Advanced technologies and a culture of instant gratification

4.) Inexpensive, due to:
      a.) Large supply

Here is a relevant example of a modern food choice that reflects all the above factors.

A middle-of-the-road meal option on the McDonalds menu, a medium ¼ Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal [1]:

¼ Pounder with Cheese: 530 calories
Medium French Fries: 340 calories
Medium Coca Cola: 220 calories
Ratio of fiber to calories: 1 g fiber per 155 calories
Caloric total: 1090 calories
Total cost: $5.79

For contrast, here is another middle-of-the-road meal option, but in the form of whole foods:

4 oz roasted chicken thigh: 235 calories
½ cup of brown rice: 110 calories
1 cup of steamed broccoli: 55 calories
½ oz of butter on broccoli: 100 calories
½ oz of shredded cheese on broccoli: 50 calories
Cup of water: 0 calories
Ratio of fiber to calories: 1 g fiber per 85 calories
Caloric total: 590 calories
Total cost: likely more expensive than $5.79

Unfortunately, whole foods are harder to come by and are more expensive. Junk food is more available and much cheaper. Naturally, people tend to favor consuming foods that are easier to get, taste good, and cost less. Do you see the problem? This is one reason why obesity rates are so high in demographics with a low socioeconomic status [2], but that is a whole other topic. It must be noted that calorie-dense foods have some valuable practical applications (e.g. for survival situations and athletes who require large amounts of energy). However, for the general population, calorie-dense foods are simply not appropriate for regular daily consumption.

Food Corporation Marketing

Food, and the images and ideas of it, can be a powerful stimulus to the mind. You may be perfectly content until you see an advertisement for pizza. Then suddenly, due to the psychological stimulus, you wish to eat despite lack of genuine hunger. Perhaps the commercial doesn’t make you hungry in the moment, but the seed is planted in your subconscious mind that may “sprout” once you actually feel hungry, leading you to buy a pizza instead of making something healthier at home. Of course, food corporations are aware of these psychological tendencies, as their marketing strategies are based on them.

Food advertisements are everywhere. As stated earlier in this article, “one is subjected to the constant circulation of food-image advertisement in television, the internet, magazines, mail, and billboards.” It’s difficult to avoid temptation in this society. Many food corporations advertise with the primary goal of convincing consumers to buy their product, despite lack of hunger and lack of nutrition in their food. Corporations employ consumer psychologists whose job is to sway consumers into buying their products in ways the consumer is not even aware of. This is not conspiracy; this is basic business enterprise in American society.

Overeating is a Cultural Norm

Here is a simple piece of weight loss advice, “Eat until you are hungry, and then stop.” While this isn’t an absolute guarantee for weight loss, it can usually yield positive results. Being mindful and differentiating genuine satiation from eating for other reasons (e.g. boredom, stress, fun, or pleasure) is a fundamental skill in regulating your food intake. I go deeper into this topic in my article about mindful eating. Unfortunately, eating past satiation is the norm in American society.

On restaurant menus, oversized entrees are flanked by calorie-dense appetizers and desserts. Social celebrations, like birthday parties, may have you eating out of a sense of obligation. The stress of our fast-paced society often leads people to over-eat for comfort. “Eat until you clear your plate” still lingers from the Great Depression. Healthy food options are so abnormal that they require special labels like “lighter options”, “low-calorie choices”, and “healthy fare”. Why is healthy food not the baseline for meal options? Shouldn’t indulgent food be the exception that requires special labels?

Chronic Stress can Lead People to use Food as a Coping Mechanism

We live in a fast paced and complicated society. As technology progresses through time, the pace quickens and the complication grows. Modern technology offers an abundance of options in all facets of life. Increased options require increased contemplation and decision-making, overstimulating the mind.  On top of excessive decision making, many Americans deal with commuting in traffic, demanding jobs, sleep deprivation, and polarizing politics. Stress! Chronic stress, to be exact.

There are many ways to cope with stress, both healthy and unhealthy. In American culture, one of the most popular coping mechanisms for chronic stress is the consumption of junk food [3]. Why wouldn’t it? Junk food is instantly-gratifying, highly available, and inexpensive. Junk food can offer a comforting distraction from the complications of life. Eating-behavior researchers have found that chronic stress can result in over-eating [3,4,5]. To add insult to injury, Stamford biologist Robert Sapolsky’s stress-research suggests that chronic stress can contribute to obesity from a purely physiological aspect [6]. This means that over-eating doesn’t necessarily need to be present for chronic stress to contribute to weight gain.

Responding to an Unhealthy Culture with Personal Responsibility

This article is intended to be food for thought (no pun intended), as opposed to specific advice. When growing up in a culture, it’s impossible to not be influenced by it on an unconscious level (i.e. your native culture shapes your beliefs and behavior in ways you can’t easily recognize). Therefore, in order to overcome the unhealthy qualities of your culture, you must first work to recognize them.

Living healthfully can sometimes cause unwanted attention and criticism, especially in a culture where unhealthy eating and physical inactivity are normal. People and institutions may pressure you to give up healthy behaviors, whether they are aware of it or not. The hyper-availability, calorie-density, and aggressive marketing of food won’t go away anytime soon. Therefore, personal responsibility plays a huge role in living a healthy lifestyle in modern American culture. You must be willing to put your health first, and become comfortable using the phrase “no, thank you”.


References

1.) McDonald’s Nutrition Calculator
https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us/about-our-food/nutrition-calculator.html

2.) Drewnowski, A., & Specter, S. E. (2004). Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(1), 6-16.

3.) Groesz, L. M., et al. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite, 58(2), 717-721.

4.) Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior, 91(4),    449-458.

5.) Torres, S. J., & Nowson, C. A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23(11), 887-894.

6.) Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping-now revised and updated. Macmillan.