Did you catch the article in last Thursday’s USA Today “Restaurant sales climb with bad-for-you food; consumers may say they want healthier options, but bigger, badder food still sells better.” As the title clearly points out, Monster Thickburgers are much more popular items than salads at the corner fast food joint. The article then goes on to quote Morgan Spurlock – the renowned nutritionist (that’s a joke, folks) of SuperSize Me fame – saying the reason we’re more enticed by the like of French fries than carrot sticks is that we’ve failed as a society to educate ourselves about the “long-term dangers of eating bad food.”
Surprise that it is, I happen to have a different opinion about the subject. Psychologists tell us that fear doesn’t motivate change. Worrying about what something will do to us in the future will not likely cause us to change our choices now. I believe the appeal of “bigger, badder foods” has more to do with the mass diet mentality that has overtaken this country, combined with our on-the-run lifestyles that leave us starving at meals because we haven’t taken the time to feed ourselves properly.
Even if someone isn’t a conscious dieter, she or he generally believes that some foods are off limits. For the past 40 years or more, we’ve been virtually brainwashed with this message. Which foods are they? Foods rich in fat and sugar, of course – foods that we tend to like and are at our fingertips when we’re running around like crazy, driving kids to and fro or working through lunch and dinner.
It doesn’t help that the portions we’re served are so large for some of these foods. Research shows that we tend to be mindless when it comes to eating. Put a big portion in front of us, and we’ll eat ‘til it’s gone if we’re not thinking. Trouble is, when we start thinking, the diet mentality takes over. We don’t usually think about whether we really want to eat all that’s in front of us, we think about how many calories we’ll eat if we do. Then we easily fall prey to feelings of deprivation – “I can’t have it all because there are too many calories.”
Of course, if and when we have it, what happens? We feel guilty – and the ‘what the hell effect’ takes over. “I already messed up, so I might as well not even try.” It’s just another example why diets don’t work…never have and never will.
Unlike the solution proposed in the article on mindless eating that I link to above, and proposed by many traditionalists in the area of weight management, I don’t think the answer to this conundrum lies in having people be extra careful about the portion sizes of high-calorie foods. That only takes us back to the deprivation cycle mentioned above. The real solution is mindful eating, staying in touch with our bodies’ cues for when, what and how much we want to eat, feeding ourselves regularly and balanced so that our bodies can function the way they’re designed. Mindful eating also includes eating what we want, but thinking about what we really want rather than mindlessly responding to environmental cues like the smell of Cinnabons wafting through the mall.
Individual foods are not bad (unless they’re spoiled). A hot fudge sundae can be part of a healthy eating plan. Sometimes we may want the large one; that’s okay because we’re generally satisfied after it, and we don’t think about hot fudge sundaes again for a while. Any ‘extra’ calories we ate are reflected in subsequent meals; we aren’t as hungry so our bodies make up for the extra over time. Other times we may want only a taste of hot fudge sundae so we order a small, or split one with a friend. But when we forbid hot fudge sundaes, they’re all we can think about and, subsequently, all we want.
So lighten up, everybody. Enjoy a burger and fries when you want it. By eating mindfully, you’ll likely find you don’t want Monster Thickburgers – they’re too much for most of us at one sitting. And you’ll likely find you don’t even want hamburgers and fries or hot fudge sundaes or Cinnabons that often. They get boring and don’t make you feel well if you eat them a lot. In fact, you may find you don’t even like them. But you’ll never discover that if you think they’re forbidden — forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.