What will you fight for?

There’s a moment in the film “Fed Up” when Dr. Harvey Karp says that if a foreign nation were “doing this to our children, we would defend our families.” He’s talking about the way food manufacturers market products full of sugar to our kids, leading to addiction that is every bit as powerful as that caused by drugs like cocaine. The potential for a lifetime of health problems caused by the resulting obesity is both real and heartbreaking.

He could just as easily be talking about the gun lobby, though, another instance where big money and weak politicians combine to create open season on our children. The parallels between the two industries, and our lack of political will, hit me as I walked by a neighborhood church last week. On their front lawn was a memorial to victims of gun violence – rows of t-shirts with the names and ages of people in the area who died by guns in 2013.

Would we fight an outsider who was doing this to our children? What do we fight for anymore? I feel like we, as a society, are in a state of learned helplessness. That’s a condition where someone stops looking for a way to help himself, or change a bad situation, because experience has taught that nothing but pain or disappointment comes from trying. We’ve just stopped fighting the way we should be.

Sure, there are people like Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate who have fought the good fight on school nutrition standards and food marketing to kids, just as there are groups and individuals who have passionately worked for tighter gun laws. But both efforts are uphill battles that seem marked by more defeats than successes. Just this week, there were two or three more school shootings. When the news comes on, we can no longer tell if we’re hearing about yesterday’s shooting or a new one today; we’ve become so inured to such news that hardly anyone is even calling for a change in gun laws.

People on the other side of this debate – for both food and guns – say that it’s about individual responsibility. “Kids need to eat less and exercise more.” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But we can no longer control everything individually. That just doesn’t work in a modern country where everyone is exposed to huge social networks and an unstoppable media barrage. At this point the only changes that will be of significance are the ones that alter the conditions in which we live, that transform the toxic environment for everyone.

Clarence Darrow said that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” So let’s stop the helplessness. We all need to stand up and say we’re fed up.

Food for thought

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.