A big fat crisis

A big fat crisis

My first read of the year was A big fat crisis by RAND scientist and medical doctor Deborah Cohen. Written in 2013, the same issues still rule supreme as little has changed in how we deal with the obesity epidemic. Cohen points to two core reasons why our waistlines keep expanding. 

The first is human nature and how we’re hardwired to eat. Eating is not rational behavior, but it’s primitive, and we struggle with self-control. According to experiments, our level of self-control is established early in childhood. Children who exercised more self-control were also less likely to become overweight later in life. It’s important to note that self-control is exhausting and the more choices we have to make in a short time, the more depleted we become and the more vulnerable we are to temptations.

Cohen demonstrates this with an experiment where three groups of people were asked to participate in a taste perception test. All groups were fasting for three hours before the test and when they entered the laboratory room, there was a display of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and chocolate candies and another display with red and white radishes. The first group ate the cookies and candies, while the second group ate the radishes and were told not to touch the cookies and candies. After eating, the participants were asked to wait fifteen minutes for the sensory experience of the food to fade while doing an unrelated problem-solving task. A third group, the control, started working on the problem-solving task right away and didn’t have to wait in the room with the food displays.

The results were interesting. The control group worked the longest on the problem with participants averaging twenty-one minutes. The group that was allowed to eat the cookies and chocolates gave up after nineteen minutes while the groups that had to refuse the treats gave up after just eight minutes. What made them give up so quickly? While they blamed it on being tired or simply not up for the task, the scientists theorized that there was a connection between having to use up energy to resist the treats and rapidly tiring on the subsequent task. 

In a similar experiment, a group of chronic dieters watched an emotional scene from Terms of Endearment. Half of them were asked to suppress their emotions, while the other half were asked to act naturally. After the movie, the subjects were served ice cream and told to eat as much as they wanted to. The group that had suppressed their emotions during the scene ate 55 percent more ice cream than those who didn’t. 

From this, we can conclude that if we improve self-control in one area, we often sacrifice it in another. Eating is a complex behavior. Smokers who refuse cigarettes have less capacity to reject food, which is a plausible explanation for why we sometimes gain weight when we give up smoking. Our cognitive system that requires conscious awareness to perform tasks operates on average five percent of the time. It leaves us with impulsive and automatic decision-making most of the time.

Cohen also points to the transformed food environment as a chief cause of obesity. Food became more accessible as prices dropped and the cues to eat more became harder to spot as advertisements became more sophisticated. What used to be a game of persuasion is now downright manipulation. So what can we do? Stop watching TV, stay away from the treats in the grocery store isles, and don’t visit restaurants. That’s not going to happen. 

What Cohen envisions is more regulation and a new type of supermarket, possibly a non-profit, that has healthy eating at the core of its operation. It’s a smaller place than the modern giant food mart where staff is trained to advise consumers on food choices and encourage home-cooking. It’s a utopian vision. As long as the profits remain huge in junk foods, I can’t see it happening. It doesn’t mean that Cohen is wrong to make this suggestion. If nobody even tries to address the problem, we can never solve it. Books like A big fat crisis fill an important role in taking the blame away from the consumer and pointing the finger at the industry and the toxic food landscape we’ve created. When advertisers use eye-tracking glasses to determine how you respond to images of food and finetune their message, do you really stand a fair chance? I don’t think so.

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