The popularity of restrictive fad diets and a cultural obsession for healthy eating in the US are disharmonious with our nation's standards for portion sizes, and an obesity epidemic that continues to worsen year after year. It really does seem like our nation has an eating disorder of its very own.
In 2015, I attended an investor conference in Las Vegas and met several inspiring, and very interesting, new people. The first night of the conference, we attended a cocktail party where I expected the focus of the conversations to be stock-trading; much to my surprise, a good portion of my time was spent talking about nutrition.
Whenever I mention my graduate studies in nutrition, I typically open myself to a lot of conversation and questions on the topic. Conference attendees were intrigued to hear my thoughts on the Keto Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, and the Alkaline Diet, which has been promoted and popularized by the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. A man started raving about completing the “Banana Challenge”... which, to me, instantly sounded like yet another fad born from the Internet and social media. I further learned this "challenge" entailed eating nothing but bananas for a period of 30-60 days. Many questions surrounding human nutrition and specific diets were brought up that evening.
I always welcome these conversations, and enjoy sharing my thoughts and hearing others... but one thing has become strikingly clear: nutrition is a topic of universal interest and everyone wants to join these conversations.
While some fad diets may be better than others (and some are just outright harmful), their existence and popularity do make a solid, yet paradoxical, statement about American culture and values: we are a nation with rapidly increasing overweight and obesity rates, in constant search of the next quick-fix toward better “health”.
Our culture, which is so heavily influenced by mainstream media, often portrays the overweight and obese as lazy, defiant, or ill; meanwhile, thinness is associated with health, goodness, and higher social status (1). Americans spend over $60 billion per year on diet programs, weight loss products, and gym memberships per year… so, why is the obesity rate rising?
There is a significant, collective anxiety toward food in America. From my personal studies and observations, I see that Americans are largely overwhelmed and confused, both by a plethora of food choices and conflicting, and often manipulative, information... so, it comes to no surprise that answering the simple question, “What’s for dinner?” may not feel very simple at all. We have become guided more by food marketing schemes and the newest fads and trends than by our own natural senses.
In Michael Pollan’s New York Times article, “Our National Eating Disorder”, he introduces his readers to Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, and Claude Fischler, a French sociologist, who began studying food attitudes through a series of cross-cultural surveys. They observed very different attitudes toward food among Americans and the French.
While Americans were likely to associate the phrase “chocolate cake” with a negative emotion (“guilt”), the French mainly associated it with a positive emotion, especially linked to “celebration”.
This finding did not surprise me; in fact, I often witness the word “guilt” used in conversations about food. I also see it used to promote certain foods or recipes (How about some Guilt-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies or, better yet, here is a whole cookbook devoted to "guilt-free cooking").
To be clear, this isn't a conversation about recipes, or healthy substitutions... not today, anyway. This is about the words and the attitudes we've been programmed to repeat and believe. This is about our collective, cultural anxiety around food, body image, and nutrition.
In addition to attitudes toward food, it’s important to mention the relationship between portion size and how much people actually eat. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that all participants (regardless of gender, weight, dieter vs. non-dieter), responded to increased portion sizes by eating more. This literature review article published in the scientific journal, Advances in Nutrition, shows how intensely portion size continues to be investigated for its link to obesity.
On a personal level, I've met many people who've moved to the US from countries all over the world, who've expressed their complete astonishment by US serving sizes. I recently met a man from Canada who insisted that American portion sizes are at least double, if not triple, the size of Canadian portions.
Why have portion sizes in America increased so much? Perhaps Americans have come to associate quantity with quality… or, at least, cost efficiency. Food marketing and prices can often leave us feeling like we're actually getting ripped off when we opt for the smaller portion size – a strong case for the effectiveness of value-pricing in getting consumers to buy more, more, more.
Michael Pollan also mentions that as various fad diets and “shifting nutritional fashions” are exploited by Big Food Companies, Americans are changing how they eat, meanwhile undermining the “various social structures that surround (and steady) our eating habits: things like family dinner and taboos on snacking between meals or eating alone.”
The popularity of fad diets and quick fixes need to be phased out by a true, consistent focus on sustainable lifestyle changes. We need more real food in our diets and fewer processed, heavily-advertised food products. We need to restructure our perspective and heal our relationship with food, so we can begin to see what, and how, we eat through the lens of self love, not self punishment.
Ultimately, we need to reclaim food as a pleasurable experience, not a guilty one… one that connects us more deeply with our natural senses, as we no longer obsessive seek our next "quick fix" for healthy living.
1. Guptill A, Copelton D, Lucal B. Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes. 1st ed. Malden, MA: Polity Press; 2015.