You probably believe it:
Diet and exercise are the reason you weigh what you do.
Weighing too much is the result of the wrong diet and not enough exercise.
Your weight is your own personal problem. If you don’t like your weight, you don’t have enough willpower. You should go on a diet and get yourself to the gym.
But what if I told you that you were barking up the wrong tree?
What if your weight is less a result of poor personal choices…
And more a result of corporate greed?
Would you listen?
The Weight Paradox
Decades ago, I was a typical American twenty-something who didn’t like her body.
I trained at the gym constantly, but nothing got rid of my baby fat. I drank coffee with no-sugar sweeteners. I ate salad with nonfat salad dressing. I even let a salesman at Vitamin World convince me into spending a fortune on Hydroxycut.
I was convinced that the secret to a slimmer body was getting comfortable with hunger. I needed to enjoy the sound of my stomach growling. It was a sign I was doing the right thing.
The first of a series of wakeup calls happened when I was in the Peace Corps. I lived with families who had very limited diets but still struggled with their weight.
I couldn’t get it. Isn’t the face of hunger is someone with their ribs sticking out? Yet somehow my community was both overweight and malnourished. It was a mystery.
Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty and Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, admits that it’s a paradox.
“Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” she says. It happens when people make “trade-offs between food that’s filling but not nutritious.”
And it’s not just a trade-off made by people who live “elsewhere.”
America struggles with its own malnutrition epidemic.
A third of Americans is at risk of vitamin deficiency or anemia.
And one of the biggest risk factors is being female and overweight.
If you’re a woman who struggles with her weight, the real problem might not be your weight at all. It might be undernutrition.
Before you laugh and say, “With what I eat? Not a chance!” there’s a story I want you to hear.
It’s the story of how the food industry hijacked your hunger for its own profit.
The Truth about the Food Industry
Food companies will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health.”
– Marion Nestle
Here’s the problem.
America produces more food than we could possibly eat.
Most Americans eat more food than they need to.
But the food industry is a business like any other. It has to grow by expanding sales.
Hence, the dilemma:
How can food companies sell us more food when we’re eating too much already?
That’s the premise behind Marion Nestle’s classic book Food Politics.
Nestle is a bit of a hero. She was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services for several years in the 1980s and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. She saw firsthand how food companies lobby the government for policies favorable to sales…
And she’s spent the rest of her career letting people know it.
She’s written 6 prize-winning books taking on the food industry. She’s tackled everything from soda pop to pet food.
Her mission is to get people to realize that the food industry is a business. It’s not there to make them healthy. The food industry wins when you can’t stop at just one.
And it’s so powerful it can bend the government and scientists to its will.
Don’t Believe the Research
Funding is hard to come by.
It’s especially hard when you’re a research scientist dependent on grants.
So most scientists research what they can get money to research.
One fruitful source of research funds is corporations. Companies will pay for research that “proves” their products are good for people. Those studies are then released to the media, which writes them up as a news story.
You and I read that news story and feel convinced that Product A will support our health, never realizing we’ve been bamboozled by cleverly-designed advertising.
Nestle spent a year collecting such studies as part of an exposé. As you can imagine, her decades of investigation into the food industry have left her a cynic where food health claims are concerned.
So how does she decide what to eat?
She has one simple rule:
“Never eat anything artificial.”
Food Doesn’t Always Feed You
When you buy a food item in a grocery store or at a restaurant, you assume it’s “fit for purpose.”
If a food is being sold as a breakfast item, then it should have what you need to start your day.
But that’s just an assumption.
Food sold in the supermarkets doesn’t have to meet basic nutritional standards. It simply has to be fit for human consumption.
But maybe you’re the sort of consumer who reads labels. You trust the label. If the label says this food has all the vitamins and minerals you need, then it must be good for you.
Except that it’s an easy matter to make food appear healthier. Just add vitamins and minerals to disguise the lack of inherent nutritional value.
Take breakfast cereal. Breakfast cereal is not nutritionally dense. There are many healthier options than a bowl of sweetened, highly processed grains. But cereal companies add supplements to make a bowl of cereal seem like a nutritionally complete meal.
What food companies want is for you to eat what they sell. It’s not their job to make sure you eat the right things in the right amount. They make more money when a food tastes so good you can’t stop eating it.
A New York Time exposé back in 2013 laid it out frankly. Food companies design their products to be addictive. If a food isn’t addictive enough, people will be able to stop eating it. And that may be good for them, but it’s bad news for stockholders.
Taking Back Control
I’ve been lucky enough to eat around the world.
Shopping in regular grocery stores, testing out basic ingredients like spinach, apples, yogurt and cheese.
And the most consistently beautiful food I’ve ever enjoyed came from the European Union.
The EU has strict guidelines where food production is concerned.
They care about preserving their food heritage. Wines, meats, breads, and cheeses often have long and glorious local histories.
Because exceptional food is more expensive to produce, portion sizes are significantly smaller. You eat less, but you savor every bite.
I’ll never forget searching for nonfat yogurt in a French village shop. I still thought that eating calories would make me fat. An American friend told me to forget it. The French didn’t diet. Buy the full-fat stuff and don’t worry about it, she said.
I never did master eating like a Frenchwoman, but I did start to see food differently.
I realized that diet foods and snack foods weren’t actually food. They didn’t nourish my body. They didn’t fill me up.
What my body hungered for was real food. The stuff that tasted exactly like what it was made from.
The kind of food that food manufacturers turn up their nose at, because it’s not profitable like a bag of potato chips or a can of soda.
We can’t all eat like the French, but we can stop supporting food manufacturers who engineer our desires at the expense of our health.
Don’t just think about what food to eat. Think about who made that food, and why, and what they gain when you purchase it.
Then you’ll realize your diet was never just about you. It was about how your hunger could be used against you.