As a BBC series investigates ‘The Men Who Made Us Fat’, and I continue to read ‘The Headspace Diet’ book, I consider just how powerful an understanding of the history of unhealthy food can be when it comes to my decision to eat it
Thinking as I have recently about eating and food (when do I ever not?!), but more importantly, about why people eat what they do even while knowing just how unhealthy it is, I jumped at the chance to see the first installment in new BBC series The Men Who Made Us Fat, which purports to investigate why the Western world’s collective waistline continues to increase to health-threatening proportions.
The first programme focussed on that all-encompassing ‘bad guy’, high-fructose corn syrup, which, it explains, was introduced to the Western foodstuff from America and is often indicted as one of the key reasons why people in developed countries are fat, and getting fatter.
Having myself just returned from a trip to the States – where even more people are fat and obese than in Britain, and where there seemed to be noticeably more outlets selling fast, convenient, varied and calorific food than in even the UK (it certainly looked that way to me, anyway) ‒ I was very interested to hear more about this ‘high-fructose corn syrup’. Especially since the last smoothie I drunk before leaving New York City (incidentally the ‘small’ size was almost the same size as my head) conspicuously and proudly bore the words ‘Absolutely no high-fructose corn syrup’ stamped onto its huge plastic cup.
Just what was this stuff, and could I blame it for my own demons with keeping my weight down – a problem I clearly share, albeit, my size attests, to a lesser degree than the rest of the Western world’s even more overweight citizens?
Well, the programme was certainly well-made, well-paced, and insightful.
The likeable presenter, Jacques Peretti, who himself suffered an endearing but rather scary diagnosis of a more-than-healthy level of visceral fat ‒ the internal fat surrounding his major organs, which, we’ve long been warned, can significantly increase the risk of obesity-related diseases ‒ despite not actually being overweight to look at, offered an informative evaluation of high-fructose corn syrup’s role in the wider theatre of obesity.
Basically, the programme explained, changes to farming methods in 1970s America, pioneered by Nixon’s agriculture minister Earl Butz, led to revolutionary increases in the yield of corn crops, allowing farmers to produce more food than ever before. This, while clearly a good thing in terms of food production and the farmers’ own prosperity, led to a surplus of corn. Canny developers noticed that corn could be made into corn syrup, which was, handily, over a third sweeter than the ever-expensive sugar. Suddenly, high-fructose corn syrup, as well as merely simple corn, could be poured into everything, for less cost than ever before, sweetening, preserving and plumping up not only the food on our tastebuds, but also the money that flowed into the pockets of the food and drink manufacturers, with, at that point, little knowledge or concern for the consequences.
As the programme itself pointed out – corn, and high-fructose corn syrup, born from the surplus of the rampantly-producing farmers, just made sense to those looking to make money from food and drink. Since sweet things taste good, and using a cheaper source of sweetener costs less, consumers were happy too, and consumed more and more of the sweeter stuff, found in as varied places as bread, meat, sauces, oils and, of course, soft drinks.
Soft drinks in themselves, not entirely surprisingly, are as we speak a source of much controversy in New York, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks to ban supersize cups of ‘soda’ as a means of curtailing the city’s ever-increasing weight problem.
This legislative approach itself opens up many of the problematic questions pertaining to manufacturers’ use of corn and corn syrup, and their responsibility in the obesity crisis, versus the individual’s own responsibility to eat healthily (or indeed, their right not to) . Just where, if at all, do individuals’ rights and responsibility towards healthy eating lie?
“It’s not my fault I’m fat!”
Concurrently, the BBC programme addressed the issue of why we as developed nations adopted the view that ‘fat’ and not ‘sugar’ was the bad guy when it comes to food (basically one scientist argued that fat was the culprit, another countered that sugar was actually the key player in weight gain – the ‘fat’ proponent won, the other discredited, leading manufacturers to simply replace the fat in food with sugar, addressing people’s weight problems in a demonstrably cack-handed, half-baked and utterly misleading way).
But arguably more pertinently, it also suggested that corn syrup’s addition to everything ‒ especially soft drinks, whose consumption has rocketed over the past few decades ‒ actually causes addiction in the brain by turning off the body’s receptors to ghrelin, a hormone which tells us we’re full. So, not only did portion sizes and contents of our food increase, but our ability to say no to that supersize bucket of Coke, that second burger, or that third piece of cake actually decreased as well.
Coupled with ‘progress’ being made in the frozen food and convenience food industries, along with the diet industry, which for decades mistakenly sold low-fat, but high-sugar and high-salt products to desperate weight watchers, the programme begins to intimate that perhaps the Western world can’t merely be labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘lazy’ when it comes to why we’re all on average three stone heavier today than we were half a century ago.
To me, who near-constantly sees food – especially when it comes to sweet, fatty, overly processed and refined foods versus fresh, non-processed and low-calorie food ‒ as an on-going battle between what I know I should eat and what my brain often tells me I want to eat, this is a tempting thought.
THEY made me fat, I can claim, as the programme seems to posit – with their over-production of corn, their canny manufacture of convenience foods, their immoral addition of the same amount of high-fructose corn syrup as sugar into sweet foods despite it being far more sweet, leading my brain to develop an addiction to the contents and an inability to say no.
Alongside this, as the availability of food grows ever-more present, food ingredients ever more complex, and shops such as WHSmith show absolutely no compunction about bombarding us defenceless shoppers with their knock-down price chocolates and sweets along the queue (which is all happening alongside a whole host of other things, such as increasingly sedentary lifestyles) it’s clear that overweight people really do have a claim that it’s not, actually, all their fault.
Except, where I’m concerned, and I guess, all people who actually want to do something about the weight that bothers them, rather than just point the finger, or worse, sit and stew in self-pity, self-hatred and helplessness at the cycle of capitalism that just won’t let them get thin, actually that’s not the whole story.
Capitalism: Hardly surprising
What this BBC programme told me is that basically, capitalist companies will stuff their products with whatever delectably-tasting things they can get away with, and sell them in whatever quantities they think we’ll buy, regardless of how unhealthy or potentially addictive they are. As far as they’re concerned, if we get addicted to their products, then bonus. Plus, even if we don’t, the simple fact is that humans usually prefer what tastes best, what’s cheapest, and what’s (therefore), most convenient and readily available. So fat, sugar and salt. It sounds scandalous, but it’s hardly surprising.
And as the programme also showed, the food and drink companies will sacrifice themselves bloody and screaming on the altar of consumerism before they’d possibly admit that their products play any role in the current obesity crisis. Witness the cavalcade of super-powerful fast food and confectionery giants sponsoring so-called ‘healthy event’ The London 2012 Olympics, including old friend McDonalds, and cheerful ‘British’ brand Cadbury’s. It’s all about balance, they cry, and our products are just another food choice in a person’s healthy, balanced lifestyle! Similarly, in fact, to the representative of a soda drinks company, who, when interviewed by Peretti, utterly refused to take any responsibility for America’s weight problems (despite barrages of evidence that soft drinks increase weight gain) on the basis that soft drinks or high-fructose corn syrup alone, won’t make someone fat.
And while it all may sound utterly craven, capitalistic, buck-passing evasive bollocks (which it is), in some way, they’ve got a point.
“We should be under no illusions”
Because while we can look to all these reasons as the cause of our collective weight gain, I am struck time after time of a particularly instructive sentence I read in my recent, early perusal of Andy Puddicombe’s mindful eating manifesto, ‘The Headspace Diet’ (my discovery of and witterings about which here, and about which more here).
“Without wanting to sound cynical or conspiratorial in any way,” writes Puddicombe, “It’s useful to acknowledge the simple fact that certain elements of the food industry make their money, big money, huge money, from trying to sell us the same foods that we try so hard to resist.
“We should,” he continues, “be under no illusions about the primary motivation of these elements within the food industry…if they can sell us more products by refining the way things taste (read: adding more fat, salt and sugar (why hello there, our friend the high-fructose corn syrup!) then we should fully expect them to do so. It doesn’t make it right, but we should expect it nonetheless.” *
This apparently simple concept struck such a chord with me – from feeling at the mercy of food companies, advertising, sugar, fat and salt, and constant and overwhelming availability, these few choice sentences suddenly seemed to shift the power away from the hands of the manufacturers, and into my own.
Because, at my lowest moments food and weight-wise, I have often despaired, “If all this stuff is so bad for me, and so terrible for me, then why it is everywhere? How come I can buy it in quantities that could not only see me drown in self-hatred at my appearance, but also actually kill me if I kept eating it, day after day? And how come it tastes so damn good, and how come, for the love of cake, do I keep wanting it despite how crap it is?!”
But reading Puddicombe’s words, along with watching the BBC series’s first episode, rather than feeling like it was all very unfair and that I was at the mercy of food products, it all suddenly seems that bit more obvious – and, once handed such powerful yet simple information, eminently easier to tackle this multi-trillion dollar industry obstacle to a healthy weight.
As Puddicombe continues, “Should we try to change this state of affairs? Absolutely, but that will take time. In the meantime, should we leave our food choices to the tactical recommendations of the food industry? Absolutely not.”
No silver bullet – but still a breakthrough
It’s not a silver bullet – after all, knowing that something is addictive and purposefully overwhelmingly pleasurable doesn’t make you immune to its charms. I still hanker after crisps, walk past McDonalds and feel a frisson of longing for the crispy chicken and hot, salty fries, think that a chocolate bar will solve all my tiredness and other various problems, and become assaulted by fierce desires to hunt every single kitchen cupboard for rubbish, as a solution to feeling worried, bored, or stressed. And I still see food as celebratory and sociable.
But by seeing it for what it is, and understanding just how powerful it is mentally, as well as physically, I am slowly learning to disassociate it from my own feelings – which are, apparently, shared by so many.
Understanding more about where food temptation comes from, why processed ‘junk foods’ and sugary snacks not only taste so great but are also available at every turn, and the psychosomatic reasons behind why I want them despite knowing I shouldn’t, make it much easier to think rationally. Now, when I want to eat something potentially unhealthy and unnecessary – which, crucially, I know will lead me to self-hatred and feelings of futility later on ‒ such as a chocolate bar, plate of chips, or several samples from the latest office box of Krispy Kremes or Waitrose brownies ‒ I’m more able to think about what’s in it, why I want it, and whether I really actually do.
If it doesn’t stop me eating it, it might reduce how much I eat of it in the long run, and stop me beating myself up for wanting it in the first place.
Because, while it may not be my fault that I want to eat sugar, fat and salt, nor is it my fault that momentarily, those things seem like the solution I need to whatever anxiety, boredom, stress or tiredness is bothering me at that moment – which helps with the self-lambasting thing ‒ it’s still ultimately up to me to marshal what I do and don’t choose to put in my mouth (no sniggering at the back).
Which is how the food manufacturers are both right, and ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, they say, our products don’t make you fat on their own. But what they don’t acknowledge (to do so would be commercial suicide) is that many won’t have the strength or knowledge to resist the addictive nature of the food – and will keep eating it regardless of health, so lining the pockets of the food producers in charge.
Encouraging people to eat their foods as a very occasional ‘treat’ as part of a healthy diet which mainly doesn’t include their products, isn’t how McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Cadbury or Nestlé make millions.
But having it pointed out to you, authoritatively but compassionately, however simple or seemingly obvious, that these companies actually don’t care about your weight, and just want to make money from you despite selling comforting and familiar things that taste so good, is surprisingly empowering.
I rarely eaten poorly at mealtimes; snacking has always been my downfall. But armed with this information, galvanised by the BBC programme and the Headspace wisdom, slowly, I can see myself choosing healthier things to snack on, such as fruit and veggies, over quick and easy hits like chocolate, cake or fried food. Now, I can begin to rationalise why I want to eat such rubbish, rather than panicking, simply hating myself for being off some ‘plan’, or labelling myself repeatedly and unhelpfully as nothing but a weak-willed little piglet.
It may sound obvious or trite, but for me, that’s a pretty big breakthrough. If I find no more big reveals along my mindful eating journey, I’ll be happy in the knowledge least I’ve started to unpick why I eat what I do, and crucially, remove the link between eating, and beating myself up for it.
*The Headspace Diet: 10 Days to Finding Your Ideal Weight, by Andy Puddicombe, Hodder & Staughton, 2012, page 26, paperback edition. Italicised section of the quotation entirely my addition, obviously!
The Men Who Made Us Fat, BBC Two, Thursday 28th June, available on BBC iPlayer soon after, with episodes 1 and 2 still available to view (at time of writing) here
No images are my own – all credits and copyrights owned by the sources linked.