The latest report on obesity rates across the nation was issued last week, and it is pretty sobering. Sixteen states saw their obesity rates go up over the past year, and none went down. In 12 states, more than 30% of the population is obese, and Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20%.
Obesity rates are also higher in racial and ethnic minorities, those with less education, and those with lower incomes.
Why is this happening, and what can we do about it? It is a complex problem with no easy answers. Certainly environmental factors play a big role. Think about the societal changes during the past generation – 24/7 availability of food, acceptability of eating and drinking almost anywhere, huge increases in the number of meals eaten away from home, significant increases in portion sizes, and the difficulty in obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods.
But we also have to consider our susceptibility to becoming “addicted” to the high fat, high sugar diets that are so prevalent. In his 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration) cites research that shows that these “highly palatable foods” actually are addictive for some people. When we eat them, and eventually when we even see or think about them, dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable experiences. In addiction, dopamine actually changes the brain, sending the message to repeat the action that leads to pleasure.
Eating should be a pleasurable sensory experience. But why do some people become unable to stop themselves from indulging in the high fat/high sugar/high salt foods, while others (about 15% of the population, according to Kessler) can just say “no”?
Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who has treated addiction and written about it, believes that all of us are on the addiction spectrum somewhere (not necessarily just with drugs or alcohol). Everyone wants that endorphin rush. Identified addicts are just further along the spectrum because (he believes) they have suffered more, usually from abuse in childhood.
I’m not suggesting that everyone who overeats was abused as a child; but I do think we have to consider the emotional reasons that people become “addicted” to food. After all, the term “comfort food” came from somewhere! What are we lacking? Soren Gordamer says, in Wisdom 2.0, that “Our relationship to eating is often less about nourishing our body or how the food tastes and more about satisfying our desire system…What we crave is not the food, but the satisfaction of getting what we want, of having our desires filled.”
Gordamer suggests mindful eating practices to bring more consciousness to our eating. Kessler says that it is necessary to create a different reward system for yourself, and to structure your environment in order to avoid the cues that lead to overeating. Dr. Mate believes that it is never too late to get the nurturing and compassion that we need in order to change the conditioning of our brains.
So where do we go from here?
- We need to hold food manufacturers and restaurants responsible for giving us the information we need to make good decisions about the food we eat. Some have a history of combining sugar, fat and salt in calculated ways that are designed to keep people coming back for more.
- Our society must change perceptions around food and eating. Dr. Kessler says we need a cognitive shift about unhealthy food like the one we had one about smoking. It used to be viewed as sexy, and now mostly it is thought to be nasty and unhealthy.
- Have some structure around meals. Sit down at the table with family or friends. When you eat, just eat.
- What are your triggers for unhealthy eating? How can you avoid them? Maybe it means giving up some TV so you don’t see the commercials; or changing your route to work so you don’t see a certain restaurant.
- Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. Avoid situations that might trigger negative emotions, something Buddhists refer to as “guarding the gateway of the senses”.
- Practice self-compassion. Change starts with acceptance of who you are now.