Note: You can learn more about the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Program at AmIHungry.com or on my website.
Listening to the kids in the documentary Fed Up was heartbreaking.
Hearing them talk about trying to eat right and exercise and do all the things they’re “supposed” to do – and still not lose weight – brought me back to my first round at Weight Watchers. I remember doing a “Breakthrough Diet” for two weeks, and I thought it was guaranteed to make me lose weight.
Except I gained a little.
I wish I had learned enough from that experience not to go back, but I didn’t. Like so many others, I thought it was all my fault, that I had failed at the diet. I didn’t think that the diet had failed me.
Of course, my situation was different than most of the kids in the movie since I didn’t eat a lot of processed foods, but it had some overlap.
I also found it eye-opening in ways I didn’t expect, while it reaffirmed other things I’ve known. Here are my top 5 takeaways from it.
1: Diet culture has been damaging
One of the first things the movie discussed is how the fixation on diets trends closely with the rise in obesity. And in this case, the two do seem to be related.
As the movie notes, when the fixation on diets and weight first started, the fat content in foods was the target. We went through a low-fat craze, where almost everything had the fat cut out.
But as they pointed out in the movie, and as most of us know from our own experience, fat is what gives many foods their flavor. If you take it out, you’re left with something as appealing as cardboard.
The answer? Make it taste good by adding lots of sugar. To everything.
2: Sugar is everywhere
Which brings me to the next point. Sugar really is everywhere, especially with processed foods.
It’s in energy drinks, soda, and fruit juice. Canned tomato sauce, cereal, yogurt, some bread, frozen meals, ketchup, and salad dressing. And of course, it’s in candy, cookies, cake, ice cream, pies, brownies, and more.
It might go by other names, of course. These days, we have a lot of things sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and agave. The sugar might have less obvious names like dextrose, maltose, or sucrose.
Now, I’m not saying sugar is evil or that it should be demonized. The times when people told me I couldn’t eat any sugar were some of my most rebellious periods.
But I am a fan of moderation, in all things. I do think it makes sense not to go overboard with sugar, but since it pops up in so many places, it’s hard to be moderate.
3: Advertising takes advantage of people being food suggestible
This is especially true when you consider the effects of advertising.
In the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Program, we talk about the fact that people are “food suggestible.” This means that you might want to eat something simply because you see or smell it.
Consider that in relation to these statistics from the Fed Up movie site – and remember, that documentary came out five years ago, so it might be worse now:
Kids watch an average of 4000 food-related ads every year (10/day).
98% of food-related ads that children view (3920/year) are for products high in fat, sugar, sodium.
At the same time, as the movie noted, you don’t see ads for broccoli, zucchini, apples, or bananas.
This means that kids are primed to want the foods they see advertised, foods that happen to be very high in sugar. Those foods are also often aimed at busy parents as being less expensive and easier to deal with than making a home-cooked meal.
4: It’s political
This is also where some of the politics come into play.
As the movie discussed, anyone who suggests that we stop this type of advertising to kids gets blasted. The words “nanny state” get tossed out left and right as people complain about government interference in personal choice.
Then again, how much of a personal choice is it when you don’t even know what your options are, since you only see one thing?
That’s why I liked one of the other suggestions in the movie, that every ad showing a high-sugar food should be balanced out by an ad for a low-sugar food, one that makes the other foods more glamorous.
The challenge is that the food industry is hugely influential. I didn’t know before seeing the film that Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign was originally meant to be about a political movement, about taking action on some of the ways food is presented and categorized. It then became something completely different, at least in part because she had to be careful of the political ramifications of going after the food industry.
Then there are school lunches, and what gets classified as a “vegetable.” This includes French fries and pizza (!) of all things (apparently because it has tomato sauce).
Senator Amy Klobuchar came under scrutiny around this when she sent a letter in 2010 about keeping frozen pizza in the school. She has since said that she regrets sending that letter and that she was concerned about her state due to the economic downturn.
Still, the politics are inescapable, and now that sugar is so prevalent, it’s hard to go back.
5: It’s about more than calories and weight
Some people might still say that it goes back to how much food you’re eating, and that to lose weight, you should just eat fewer calories and exercise more. Isn’t that what we’ve been told for years?
The problem is, what you eat is about more than calories. Some foods make you feel full and satisfied when you eat them, while others leave you still wanting something more, even if they have the same number of calories.
Unfortunately, fat is one of the things that helps satisfy us, while sugar can leave us hungry for more.
Then there’s the fact that once you get used to things being sweet, anything that’s not sweet doesn’t taste as good anymore. Plus, it’s all too easy to feel virtuous about eating something low-fat, and you might end up eating more of it because you feel like it’s “healthy.”
Artificial sweeteners aren’t necessarily the answer, either, since some studies show that they trick the brain and cause people to eat more.
And as I’ve mentioned before, being thin doesn’t mean that you’re healthy. You can still be thin and get diabetes, just as you can be fat and not get diabetes. You can also be thin without exercising, or fat even if you do exercise.
In short, it’s not as straightforward as you might like to think.
Bringing it back to mindfulness
The movie has a Fed Up Challenge of going off sugar for 10 days, but I find my rebellion kicking in at the thought.
It’s not a matter of whether I could do it or not. It’s more a question of how that would negatively impact me in other ways, which could include going overboard on sugar on day 11.
Instead, I suggest a mindful approach. Start noticing what you eat that has sugar, either processed foods with added sugar, any sugar you add to things (like oatmeal or coffee), and how many sweets you have. Pay attention to how sweet your foods are.
Then experiment with cutting back a little. Don’t add as much sugar to something, or try replacing something with added sugar to a sugar-free version, like peanut butter. Give it a couple of days and see if you like it without as much sweetness.
At least, that’s what worked for me, and I’m at the point now where some things are too sweet. And if you had told me that when I was a teenager, I would have thought you were crazy.
If you try this, I’d love to hear how you do with it!
And on my side, I might start looking at foods for their sugar content, to see for myself how widespread this is.