Fat Traps: How Societal Norms Kill your Diet

Even with the best of intentions and willpower so many fail on their paths to improving their diets. Why? Often because of the temptations that are floating all around us because we live in a society that accepts and welcomes constant exposure to junk food. Most of my patients are perfectly content following their nutrition plan when they are at their home, cooking and packing their meals and exposed to limited temptations. It’s the second that they go to a party, an outing, or a family gathering that they slip up. Since we know that there are addictive components to foods like sugar, it is comparable to an alcoholic trying to fight an alcohol addiction but being offered shots at the grocery store, parties, family events, morning meetings, and gatherings.

As human beings many of our choices and behaviors are programmed by cultural norms. We’ve allowed junk food and fast food companies to invade our lives at every turn to make it nearly impossible to avoid. Junk food and fast food companies have worked hard to create these societal norms that makes us believe that eating harmful foods is a normal part of life. We’ve been programmed to believe that it’s impossible to eat well because nutritious food either requires too much time, is too expensive, or tastes like cardboard.

When I interned at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) I met Dr. Deborah Cohen who had recently published A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic –And How We Can End It. Dr. Cohen talks about how obesity (and in my opinion, poor diet in general, whether you are obese or skinny fat) is a public health crisis caused by fundamental limits to self-control and our modern food environment. She argues that “the conventional wisdom is that overeating is the expression of individual weakness and a lack of self-control. But that would mean that people in this country had more willpower thirty years ago, when the rate of obesity was half of what it is today! The truth is that our capacity for self-control has not shrunk; instead, the changing conditions of our modern world have pushed our limits to such an extent that more and more of us are simply no longer up to the challenge.”

After my experience in nutrition public policy with CSPI and working with Dr. Margo Wootan I realized that making any sustainable change requires a two pronged approach that includes 1. Education/Awareness and 2. An environment conducive to healthy eating. Without both components, people are setup for failure time and time again. On one hand you may know what you should be eating but if you don’t have an environment that supports those choices, then most people will end up slipping up. On the other hand you may have a very healthy environment but no knowledge on healthy eating or appreciation for the nutritious foods in your environment. In the second case people will end up seeking out unhealthy foods and will not value having that access.

What we need is change on a national policy level. But until then do your best to avoid the following Fat Traps:

1. Free Food

As the old saying goes, nothing in life is free – and that includes the bread basket at restaurants. While it may not be added to your bill, the calories are added to your waistline because the body has no way of knowing that the bread is on the house. The same is true for soda served on airplanes or any other unhealthy food that is given away. Don’t confuse ‘free’ on your wallet with ‘free’ on your waistline.

2. The Value Meal

You may have pulled into the drive thru lane with the intention of ordering a grilled chicken sandwich but you pulled out with 600 additional calories in the bag. Going for the combo meal seemed like a smart financial investment but you didn’t consider the consequences of consuming 600 additional calories from the medium French fry and refreshing soft drink.

Studies show that price incentives effectively influence individual food purchases, which is why fast food companies strategically highlight their combo meals. Next time you eat out, order only what you are hungry for and start to see the value of actually saving money – and calories.

3. Food Attached with Experiences

From popcorn at the movie theater to hot dogs at a baseball game, our culture has been programmed to believe that eating certain foods can enhance an experience. One study compared individuals who were given fresh popcorn in a medium-size container at a movie theater to those given stale popcorn in a large container. The group with the stale popcorn consumed 38% more overall, which was likely attributed to the large container size. The researchers found that the stale, cardboard texture did not deter people from devouring the popcorn at the movie theater, illustrating that the taste of the food was not the driving force for people’s consumption.

In the future, increase your awareness of the flavors and textures of your food. Avoid eating mindless calories and reassure yourself that you can have fun at movies and sporting events — with or without the junk food.

4. Bad Influences!

Individual food choices often differ depending on the people that you are with at a given meal. When eating out with friends who are ordering chicken wings and burgers, you might second-guess ordering off of the salad menu. This theory is well known as the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect. Being around those who eat unhealthy can create less guilt and more justification for engaging in the same behaviors. It also serves as a form of peer pressure.

On the flip side, a 2012 study found that positive social influences encourage weight loss. The participants were divided into teams for a 12-week online weight loss competition. Those that lost clinically significant amounts of weight tended to be on the same teams and reported high levels of teammate social influence.

Surround yourself with individuals who inspire you to eat well and engage in physical activity. When you are with your friends who eat less healthy, be sure to order first to set the tone for the rest of the table.

5. Food Ads

Food advertising to children has been a large focus of many studies because it is associated with higher rates of childhood obesity. One study indicates that adults are also vulnerable to food ads. The results showed that adults exposed to food advertising chose 28% more unhealthy snacks, compared to those who did not view food advertisements.

Regardless of your age, food advertising establishes social norms. Get in the habit of walking away from the television during commercials or pre-record shows to allow for fast-forwarding through the mouthwatering ads. As another suggestion from someone who doesn’t own a TV–find other hobbies!!

Remember that when it comes to food, there is always a choice. Try your best to surround yourself with like-minded people who care about their health. It can be just as fun to stay in and cook together as it is to go out and try to navigate a menu. The goal is to base your eating habits off of what fuels your personal health and well-being instead of allowing external factors to influence your decisions.