According to the Journal of American Medicine, more than one-third (78.6 million) of US adults are obese. Obesity is an epidemic in America and can cause various health problems. Excelsior College offers a popular course called, Why We Overeat: Perspectives on Nutrition that reviews societal and individual factors while providing helpful tools for individuals. With the holiday season fast approaching, Dr. Ted Lehmann, faculty program director in the School of Liberal Arts in collaboration with Dr. Shannon Monnat and Dr. Aleta Geib, offer insights about addictive ingredients. Before you get tempted at the dessert table, you’ll want to read what they have to say.
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Excelsior Life: Does research indicate why nutritional need no longer drives our dietary habits? Dr. Lehmann: Yes. Nutritional need is merely one factor driving our dietary habits. For example, there have been marked increases in food marketing and use of chemicals that increase addictive properties in food. As a result, our relationship with food has changed from one of eating when hungry for necessary caloric intake, to eating as a form of withdrawal from the addictive properties in processed food.
This is usually because of sugar content in foods, or the high-fructose corn syrup content. Addiction to food is like an addiction to a drug. It affects the neurotransmitters and can even permanently change body chemistry.
Excelsior Life: What effect do low-priced food products with the highly addictive ingredients of sugar, fat, and salt have on obesity? Dr. Lehmann: These three substances – sugar, salt and fat – have the greatest effect on both the spread of obesity and diabetes. More addictive and lower-priced foods are densely packed with sugar, salt and fat, and they offer cheap and addictive calories. The result is the increased demand for more of these carbohydrate-laden foods which burn off quickly within the body.
These foods also offer little nutritional value or long-run energy for the body. After these dissipate quickly in the body, the body realizes it is not getting nutrients and it signals new cravings for more nutrients or more of the cheap calories. Worse still, these foods also make people feel sluggish and depressed, thereby increasing sedentary behavior. For additional information, visit “Understanding Obesity and Overeating” by Christopher Ruhm (2012).
Excelsior Life: What social and environmental factors lead to obesity? Dr. Lehmann: The most important social, political and environmental factors include individual and neighborhood socioeconomic status (ie., income and education); opportunities for physical activity in schools for children and workplaces for adults; habits of one’s social peers (eg., does one socialize with people who overeat, or with physically active people?); and access grocery stores with fresh healthy foods. Another contributing factor is fast food restaurants and convenience stores with an overabundance of what Michael Pollan calls the “trans-fat and preservative-laden processed foods in the middle aisles.
The increasingly sedentary lifestyle of Americans, the ubiquity of super tasty addictive foods, and very large serving sizes contribute the most to this phenomenon. There is also a large, indirect role of the government in subsidizing corn and high-fructose corn syrup. This combined with individuals’ socioeconomic capacity to resist such environmental determinants by paying more attention to this and the high cost to eat better. If one doesn’t have the access and knowledge, is instead surrounded by worse food choices, and incessant advertising to consume poorly, then the population’s likely rates of obesity and diabetes increase.
Excelsior Life: Knowing the factors of addictive foods at a lower price, what changes are needed? Dr. Lehmann: To change these realities requires significant shifts in American culture and society.The norm across much of American society is fast food for people in constant motion, yet stuck in their cars, and always with constrained time. The “slow food” movement and related efforts to increase fresh foods markets in localities are meaningful efforts, but they are often skewed by one’s socioeconomic standing.
Reducing income inequality and poverty would help reverse the obesity epidemic provided there is better quality foods at affordable prices among all strata of American society. The unequal nature of the quality of American neighborhoods is glaring (school quality, sidewalk safety, local gardens and parks, grocery stores etc.). Higher taxes on low quality food or the former New York City Mayor Bloomberg approach of limiting sugary drink container sizes have been found to mostly hurt poorer Americans. Poorer Americans still lack viable alternatives in their neighborhoods and they will continue to buy these less healthy food items, even at higher costs.
Excelsior Life: What changes are happening to help poorer Americans with food options? Dr.Lehmann: Movements to tax “soda” could reduce overall consumption. In addition, national governmental efforts like prohibitions against marketing and limits on the amount of sugar and fat companies can put into food would likely be effective (Europe does this), but these policies remain less likely in the US. American public health policy is often distorted by corporate interests and agribusiness lobbying to protect corn, sugar, and other heavily subsidized food stuffs. As with most important American social and political developments, change occurs at the local level which may lead to improved food standards and access to better quality food for more Americans.
Excelsior Life: What impact has the course Why We Overeat: Perspectives on Nutrition made on students and their eating habits? Dr.Lehmann: This course is among the most popular in the social sciences area, and the students and instructors have stated that the course has affected them very greatly. The neurochemistry and psychological components of the course have been highly informative, while the use of a personal food diary has helped students grapple with their own eating habits and understanding of what is in the food that they eat. One of our faculty, Dr. Aleta Geib, reported, “The majority of the students in the class said their eating habits changed for the better as a result of taking this course. In addition, the students views of people who were overweight or obese changed as well. For instance, they no longer blamed the obese for their obesity. The majority of students consider the course “life changing.”
Excelsior Life: If someone was reading this article on obesity, what would be the one takeaway that you would want them to remember? Dr.Lehmann: It is important for all of us to understand that what we eat affects us, including our neurochemical reactions and even our daily psychological disposition. It is not the fault of any individual that they may become addicted to bad foods and eating habits. Our society, food industry, and government have all coalesced to produce the poverty of our present food culture, but we do have the capacity to change our behavior and many are leading the way. Reading about how to assess what you eat now and how you could eat and live better is the best first step. In addition, two websites are recommended, Michael Pollan and Slow Food.