As the obesity epidemic continues to threaten the health of Americans, experts in the fields of medicine and nutrition have offered a range of explanations for our expanding waistlines. Some believe the proliferation of packaged foods is responsible, while others feel the shift towards a sedentary lifestyle is the culprit. Certain scientists theorize that genetically modified foods contribute to obesity, while nutritionists blame our obsession with low-fat foods. Kima Cargill, a professor at the University of Washington uses her background in clinical psychology to offer a unique perspective. In her new book The Psychology of Overeating, she explores the role our consumerist culture plays in our collective struggle to maintain a healthy weight and make healthy choices.
According to Cargill, there are several cultural and economic forces leading Americans to overeat on a regular basis. Without strict food regulations, in place, we are influenced by the immense variety of foods available and clever branding and marketing. Take, for example, the fact that you can enjoy over 80,000 drink combinations at Starbucks. This potential for personalization, in conjunction with convenience and lack of nutritional transparency, is part of the food industry’s scheme to influence consumers to purchase more. We respond to these ploys because, much like our desire for expensive clothing and cars, our appetites are fueled by our consumerist nature.
Cargill set out to write this book because current research on the subject focuses solely on issues of willpower or neurochemistry. She wanted to examine the cultural influences that lead to overeating, rather than the biological. “When I go to the grocery store, it’s almost this exercise in decoding propaganda,” she said. “I feel like I’m on this high alert of reading labels and putting a lot of effort into figuring out how they’re trying to trick people. I feel manipulated, and I wanted that story to be told.”
If grocery shopping is challenging for an expert on the topic, how are mainstream consumers supposed to cope? Cargill suggests you educate yourself on what’s in your food and where it comes from. Steer clear of packaged foods, as they often contain unrecognizable ingredients that hardly resemble real food. Finally, she says, be cognizant of how desensitized you are to marketing, attempt to lower your exposure to advertising, and teach your children to be mindful consumers.
The accompanying slideshow is provided by Daily Meal contributor Sheela Prakash, RD