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Yet another study, yet another article … by now it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that excess calorie intake is what’s behind the obesity epidemic, and the culprit is largely the refined sugar ubiquitous in almost everything Americans eat. In many cases it packs its punch in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And once our brains and bodies get used to these unneeded calories, we are literally hooked.
What’s not clear is whether we are actually powerless as individuals to break this cycle. Certainly I believe the research I’ve read that speaks to the addictive power of certain highly processed foods. And behavioralists have now debunked the myth that “willpower” is all we need to control ourselves.
I was thinking about all of this on my noontime walk today, as I passed by the odd-lots store where up until this summer I was buying all kinds of cookies and chocolate on a daily basis. I remember well the ravenous feelings I had (and the shame), and how I simply couldn’t stop myself from going in there to buy more. In fact, there was almost no part of me that DIDN’T want to go in and get that junk!
Anyone who knows me would tell you I’m not exactly a weak-willed person. I have plenty of ingrained healthy habits, too (exercising, drinking water, fruits & veggies, etc.). But the routine of getting high-carb food and trying to satiate myself with it was a real conundrum.
So, I wonder, how did I manage to break the cycle? If it’s not about strength, or will, or going cold turkey, what is it? I don’t have any secret magical powers, and god knows I still eat plenty of refined carbs every day.
If I had to take a stab at an answer, I’d say that at some point my higher-ordered brain was able to get me started on a better path, and once I got a little momentum, it was actually a self-reinforcing spiral of habits that helped me pick up speed.
In this go-round, I focused on eating foods that were as whole as possible, although not pristine (fat-free yogurt, fruit, and granola for breakfast, for example). And I more or less gave myself an opportunity to go haywire in the evenings once I had spent my basic energy budget on actual food. I’m not saying I’m happy or proud that I might eat chocolate, candy, popcorn, and some crackers at 9 p.m., but I have to admit that it was easier to stay in control of even those once I had a good day’s eating under my belt.
Obviously I don’t have any answers to how, as a nation, we could get off of this sugar-leading-to-obesity kick. But in my heart I don’t think it’s through a pill or a food product or an education campaign. I wasn’t a fan of New York City mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to regulate the sale of large-sized sodas, but there seems to be compelling evidence that drinkable calories are the “gateway drug” so to speak. Perhaps if access to really junky food was both regulated and expensive (a la tobacco), people would have an incentive to think twice.
But as long as there are 99-cent burgers at fast food joints and two-for-a-dollar cookie packs at the discount store, progress will be slight.