By Ansley Dalbo
Most people feel that excess weight or obesity is a person’s FAULT, the result of poor choices and a lack of willpower. The truth is that our society and our environment affect our weight and influences our choices in ways we’re not even aware of. Think about it this way…
There’s no debate that the changes to the food environment over the past four decades are largely responsible for the current obesity epidemic. Specifically, five things have changed:
1) Food is now manufactured to maximize the pleasure response in our brains
2) Food is available everywhere…
3) Portion sizes are now much bigger
4) The dissolution of the three-meal custom
5) Many foods have misleading health claims
For more on all of this, watch this video.
Our changing food landscape means that we’ve all gained weight at the same time that the diet industry has become a $200 billion market globally. In a world where huge portions of ultra-processed food are available everywhere and that’s become our default style of eating, we’re also inundated with images of bikini bodies and promises of 7-day cleanses which can help us lose 20 pounds fast!
In short, as we’ve gained weight, as a society, we’ve also turned increasingly to diets as the solution with deleterious effect.
Going on a restrictive diet has two consequences:
1) Restrictive diets initially result in quick weight loss which lowers your metabolism, fires up hunger hormones and lowers the hormones that make us feel full. It’s not your imagination that you’re thinking about food more often when you’re on a diet… that’s your body’s way of trying to make you eat in an attempt to defend itself!
2) Dieting creates a dysfunctional relationship with food. Not only the mindset that there are “good” and “bad” foods (and that we are “good” or ‘bad” when we eat them), but also the reality that the more forbidden a food is, the more desirable it seems… and since the foods we’re forbidding are ultra-processed foods (i.e., highly addictive), they’re VERY difficult to resist. In short, for a variety of reasons, diets set us up for the inevitable reaction to a diet which is a binge.
Cycling between a restrictive diet and “falling off the wagon” often means that we begin to turn to food as a solace or comfort when we’re having a hard time because it’s a true treat to give ourselves something that we’re usually depriving ourselves of. This then becomes something else that we feel ashamed of and beat ourselves up about, when really, this kind of eating behavior is just the next step in the logical chain reaction to dieting for many, many people.
And that’s when a yo-yo dieting cycle begins—which in turns leads to more hormonal changes, a more dysfunctional relationship with food, and worst of all, more shame around our weight and our relationship with food. The societal bias we have against people with obesity in our culture only exacerbates this sense of shame and self-blame.
You could think of it this way…
The food environment has changed which has led to weight gain for society as a whole.
For many people, gaining weight as time passes leads to dieting which then leads to hormonal changes that make us regain the weight, which causes a dysfunctional relationship with food, which leads to bingeing, which leads to more restrictive dieting and the cycle continues.
In short, even behaviors we would blame ourselves for like emotional eating or turning to highly-processed, ultra-processed foods for comfort and sustenance have roots in structural societal realities and attitudes towards weight that are dysfunctional.
That’s why it’s time to think differently about food and weight and health—to let go of the idea that restrictive diets are the answer, and to recognize that whatever changes we make to our eating habits have to be small, attainable, and changes that we can stick to FOREVER.
And most importantly, it’s time to be kind to ourselves. We got here (individually and collectively) for a whole bunch of reasons, but most of them are related to a rapacious food and beverage industry that has realized how addictive ultra-processed foods are, how easily manipulated we are to consume more and more of them, and above all else, that is determined to grow its sales and profit at the expense of our health and sanity.
Yes, we need to start making changes to the way we eat, but the first and most important place to start changing is around the shame we feel about our eating and our bodies and the way we talk to ourselves. Kindness and self-compassion can make the biggest difference for anyone who’s trying to make peace with food, and regardless of the number on the scale, learning these skills will result in a happier, saner life.
Next, if your weight is impacting your health, it’s time to talk to a physician about seeking medical options to help you manage it. There are tools available that have been proven to work over the long-run (prescription medications, bariatric surgery and cognitive behavioral therapy to name the three with the most evidence), and talking to your doctor is the place to get started with understanding what’s driving weight gain and getting the treatments needed to address the challenge.
To learn more about how our environment plays a role in weight management click here.
To find a weight management physician in the United States near you, click here.
To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.