Why are we so obsessed with food and our waistlines? This question and more, constantly leave me with a bevy of theories or reasons why there is such a large number of women in the U.S. and the west in general (and to a smaller degree, other parts of the world), who seem fixated on both food and their waistlines. Why the constant battle with our food? As a fitness and health strategist with a background in biological anthropology, I can’t help but wonder if something more complex, and culturally relevant is at play in this insanity, and dare I say, misconceptions based on misinformation.
This problem stems in large part, from a grossly uneducated and misinformed public with regard to what constitutes basic “good” nutrition and the plethora of misinformation peddled by a large segment of the media, as well as the fast and processed food industries. Additionally, our food policies and regulatory agencies (i.e. FDA, USDA, etc) have failed to show leadership in this area. Let us get real with ourselves, our food choices are also (and in some instances, largely) driven by factors other than basic hunger (i.e. “I hunger, therefore I eat”).
The point here is that, individual’ taste’s, culture, habits, and environment etc, play a pivotal role in our food choices, and by extension, the current food-related epidemic (obesity, heart disease, etc) we are facing at both the local and national level. First, let’s revisit the basics of why we need to eat at all. We need to eat and drink (water, at the most fundamental) to live; food equals fuel for the daily life-sustaining functions of the body at the chemical, cellular, and systemic levels.
After that, there is no physical reason (technically speaking) why we need to eat other than to sustain life. What I’m driving at here is that, outside of eating to keep the body operating at an optimum level ( regardless of age, for instance) there is no real reason to eat anything beyond what is necessary for maintaining a “healthy body”. So why do we do what we do? Why are we so unhealthy in terms of what we eat and how that translates into our current health issues? While I don’t claim to hold all the answers to what will arguably, require complex solutions (I’ll leave that in the capable hands of academic researchers), I do believe that an informed public is one that is healthy and empowered.
Case in point, big agribusiness and the packaged food industry argue that it is “expensive” and “unsustainable” to buy local and organic food items; that there is no “real” difference (in terms of nutritional content or quality) between organic produce and conventionally grown produce. Additionally, they often point to “research” that supports their claims. However, there is an increasing body of unbiased research that not only counters these claims but also exposes a number of the myths about the benefits of consuming organic produce vs. conventionally grown produce, food additives (i.e. dyes in processed foods, etc) and so forth.
As an avid food lover and someone who wants to know what’s in my food, the fact remains that it is in my best interest (as well as the interest of my family, community and environment) that I educate myself and others about the food production system. Why? Food is life and we live in an age where unsustainable and unhealthy industrial as well as food production systems have taken a toll on both our health and environment. Furthermore, if we expect to have a habitable planet in the future, we need to demand much more of ourselves and the industries we choose to engage in. So what does that all mean? In simple terms, it is impossible to make the necessary changes for better human and environmental health, if we are ignorant of both the processes and or mechanisms that negatively affect us.
With regards to the waistline fixation? I believe it is a distraction away from the real issues surrounding our health; a symptom of a problem that is more complex than we as individuals (especially women) or a nation, are willing to address. Our health system ranks at the bottom amongst industrialized nations, in addition to the fact that segments of government that are responsible for ensuring public health, safety, and our food production systems, are grossly underfunded (and remain under attack from industry-backed legislators, etc). Unfortunately that’s not where the problem ends. Misinformation and miseducation is wide-spread in mainstream media with “infotainment” rather than “information” being served to the public on a daily basis.
If for no other reason than protecting our very lives and the lives of our loved ones, community and environment, “we” must become educated and active when it comes to our health and wellness. A crash diet, shopping at Whole Foods, etc, is not going to get the job done, nor will fixating on someone else’s perceptions of beauty help women and girls develop a healthy self-image.
I’ve literally lost count of the number of fitness gadgets, weight-loss shakes, and other helpful whatcha-ma-call-its, circulating on the market. Most of these gadgets are far more successful at parting you from your money, than providing you with any real long-term success. While the public has a role to play (self-advocacy, personal research, etc) regarding its health care, the current dynamics and recycling of misinformation does not favor the general public. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we must be willing and committed to engaging in our food production systems (i.e. getting educated about where our food comes from, what’s in it, or what’s been added to it, etc) as well as playing an active role in changing the policies that shape both our healthcare and food production systems.