IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You’ll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.
If you’ve decided you’d like to move away from the heap of toxic bullshit known as diet culture, that probably doesn’t mean (as some suggest) that you simply want to stop taking care of yourself. You still want to eat right and move right, right? Right. But it always seems as if once we stop dieting, the only healthy eating recommendations then come from the intuitive eating movement. But what if the food decisions that we make intuitively from our body’s natural desire for health actually come from governments and Big Business instead?
In the last chapter, I spoke to you about how food politics manipulates our eating behaviours. And this time I want to speak about how the foods themselves influence what we eat.
At this point in the story, I was visiting my now GF in her home country of Australia and was hardcore into trying to become an intuitive eater. Covid has just appeared in the world, and we were stuck in the house with a LOT of snacks and NOT a lot of moving off the sofa.
The intuitive eating books were telling me that my body knew exactly what it needs, and my inability to put down the Tim Tams and salt & vinegar Smiths was a natural reaction to restriction and diet culture. Sort of like when a kid rebels and wants something they’ve been told they can’t have. In this case, the thing I can’t have being the food that diets normally say “no” to.
Fine. All good. Except it didn’t feel very good.
I didn’t seem any closer to the part of mindful eating I’d read about in the books where my body realised that cheesecakes were no longer off limits and that I’d magically crave a carrot instead.
I felt lethargic and gross, and even though I really did want to eat something green, I still wasn’t doing so because…. snacks, right? It just wasn’t happening in the way that I’d read it would. Maybe I hadn’t been doing it for long enough. Or maybe the online forums were right, and I just wasn’t intuitively eating hard enough or following the rules closely enough.
The diet industry had always told me my body was broken, and eating intuitively wasn’t helping it feel more fixed.
It’s a shame because so much of IE made sense: not listening to the food police, body positivity, slowing down, appreciating the moment, not seeing food as morally bad or good, etc. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stop eating highly processed, delicious food. You know how some parents try to stop their kids from smoking by making them chain-smoke a carton of cigarettes? But then how for some that plan backfires and turns the kid into a lifelong smoker? I felt like IE was turning me into the food equivalent of a nicotine-addicted teenager. There was just something a little, I dunno… “off”, about being guided by taste and desire.
NB: A word about semantics here… I can hear some of you saying “Dom, you know all food is highly processed, right?!”. And my reply to you is stop being a pedantic wanker! You know the type of food I’m talking about: the food we all used to call “junk food”. I will talk in later chapters about food and health and what good and bad means (I did talk somewhat about it last in this blog), but right now, the words “highly processed” are easily recognisable terms perfect for moving the narrative of my story on. So deal with it, please!
I was left feeling disillusioned and stuck. I no longer had the strict rules of the diet industry to rely on, but the alternative guidance of intuitive eating wasn’t helping me eat in a way that felt good either. But luckily, I was also researching the food industry itself (in the last blog, I shared summaries of some of the books I read: Salt, Sugar, Fat; Fast Food Nation, and those by Marion Nestle ). And that research had some of the answers for me. It made me realise that there were bigger forces at play in deciding what I wanted to eat than just my tongue and its taste buds.
So, grab a cuppa and settle in for a history lesson…
Humans have always been good at fucking around with our food. It didn’t take us long after we discovered fire to realise that food tasted better once it was cooked. Cooking meant we expended fewer calories eating because our food needed less chewing and digesting in order for our bodies to be able to break down into usable energy. This meant we had more precious calorie energy spare to put towards other things, like having more babies and growing bigger, smarter brains. We used our newfound smarts in learning how to farm and work out it’s easier to hunt animals if we put them behind fences.
Cooking was the first of the significant leaps in changing how homo sapiens ate. The second huge change happened in the last hundred years or so when we entered the industrial era.
Industrialisation and the mass production it brought with it created a Western culture of “Bigger, Faster, Cheaper”. Mass production meant having all three was easy and food fitted into that ideology easily.
The introduction of bigger, faster, cheaper, food could only happen because four essential cultural changes happened practically all at once…
- Fridges and microwaves became normal household appliances that allowed the food industry to create huge amounts of new products for homes and restaurants all of which had more flavour than most people had ever eaten.
- Women entered the workforce and had less time to cook meals from scratch, so families became more reliant on mass-processed food.
- Fast food meant that more people than ever before could afford to go out to eat. And if we didn’t want to leave the house, ready meals and frozen desserts were invented so we could have restaurant quality whenever we wanted. So decadent food became more of an everyday standard instead of just for special occasions.
- Reliance on seasonal produce reduced as more and more foods could now be eaten all year round.
Mass-produced and highly processed food was a hit with people. The new levels of salty, fatty, sweet, goodness unleashed was a fucking revelation to taste buds. And what’s more, the food industry loved how this type of product was cheaper, faster, and more profitable to make than whole foods like meat and potatoes ever were (see the agricultural act stuff in the last blog). And what’s more, customers couldn’t get enough of it.
The industry soon invented the job of food flavourists to make the food taste even better. These were people whose job was to turn cheap ingredients like soy, flour, sugar, oil, additives, corn, etc, into taste explosions. In the 1970s, a guy called Howard Moskovich used science to invent what he called a food’s “Bliss Point”: a perfect combination of fat, salt, sugar, texture, crunch, and mouth-feel all designed to hit caveman pleasure points in a way that bypasses feelings of fullness. In other words, he used science to invent food that we couldn’t stop ourselves from eating.
So, what’s the problem here? We have cheap, amazing food, whenever we want it. Perfect, right? Right?!!
Well no. Huge problem, actually…
A human body cannot keep eating without limits. (NOTE: this has nothing to do with body weight, this is just logic!). We have a pretty tight balance between the energy we eat and the energy we use. The book “Burn” (the link talks about weight loss but is an excellent summary of the book) talks about the phenomenon beautifully. We use a few clever biological mechanisms to control the amount we eat, such as hunger and fullness hormones, and sensors to monitor stomach stretch. And we also regulate food intake based on taste using this thing called taste-specific satiety.
This phenomenon makes us feel full and stop eating when we get bored of the taste of a food. This explains why even if there’s still technically stomach space, there are only so many apples or plain chicken breasts we can eat. But as soon as we add peanut butter, or pasta sauce to those plain ingredients, we can eat a fuck tonne more of them. Essentially, the more taste combinations a food has, the more of it we can eat before we naturally feel the need to stop. The food industry realised this and came up with food that bypasses taste-specific satiety and therefore our natural fullness mechanisms.
Again, please note, I’m not telling anyone that they must control what they eat, ESPECIALLY not for any weight-control reasons. But we all know from experience that most of the time, eating too much just doesn’t feel good, especially if we do it often.
Now, the Intuitive eating movement is correct when it says restriction does help to explain a lot of our desire for highly processed foods. But I’ve never felt it to be a complete explanation as to why we both crave them and then find them so hard to stop eating. That part has never sat right with me. However, the idea that these kinds of ultra-delicious food might actually override our hunger and fullness cues does start to make a lot more sense as to why when we “pop, we just can’t stop”.
But the food industry didn’t stop by fucking with the amount we could now eat in one go. It also screwed with how many times a day our culture wanted to eat.
The industry noticed we were spending less time at home eating family meals, and more time outside or in the office. And so, it did what a good business does best; It saw a gap in the market and invented a product to fill it. In this case, the gap was a gap in time that could be filled with eating, and it filled that gap with snacks.
Snacking throughout history has normally been associated with being rich. Nobles often had bowls of fruits, olives, and breads to ease boredom between meals. This changed when granola-type bars were invented as field rations for soldiers. But it was the rise of industrialisation and marketing that allowed the food industry to turn us into a nation of snackers.
Big Food showed us all the extra times we could fill up our time by eating their products: kids now needed treats after school, baths became more indulgent with chocolate, and no hard-working tradesman could now get through their day without extra snackable sustenance. The marketing campaigns worked so well that snacking is now part of our nutritional guidance as something we need, even though it has been a rarity in human history.
“Eat only when you feel hungry” is easy to say, but culture is a strong driver of behaviour. It even creates habits in us that we assume come from our own autonomous decisions of how we want to act, even when it comes to things like how hungry we feel. Food companies know that we are biologically programmed to feel hungry as soon as we see food. This is why we see food adverts and places to buy food everywhere, we’re even taught to keep a lot of it in our houses, often on display in fruit bowls and on shelves.
These clever fuckers also now use fear as well as pleasure and biology to bias our food choices, using it to promise us long, disease-free lives. And they use science to help us buy into their claims.
The food industry is a master of cherry-picking facts from science and using them to create terrifying headlines. These ‘facts’ are manipulated to invent plausible-sounding health catastrophes which they can then use to sell us food that’ll save us from them. Phew… thanks, guys!
Food packaging is crammed full of packing slogans and buzzwords to make everything we eat appear healthy or that it’s guarding us against whatever’s the newest harbinger of doomed health. Big Food is an expert in creating food trends and inventing products that satisfy them: gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, farm-fresh, organic, GMO-free, chemical-free, no-processed, vitamin-enhanced, added fibre… and all their claims are based on weak data, borrowed science, or self-funded studies known to show heavy bias towards the company’s own products.
The makers ‘exercise’ foods convince us that our metabolisms require ‘firing up’ with food every 4 hours, that we need to eat quantities of protein only an abnormally large African lion needs, and even that real food isn’t good enough, so best fill our shelves with obnoxiously large tubs of supplements too.
It only makes sense that this hunger for health is biasing our food decisions. How do we really know that our craving for an apple comes from our own internal drives rather than a subconscious response to the advert about cancer we watched two minutes before?
And just to throw another potential spanner in the eating works, science reckons that genetics also might play a role in how much we eat. It suggests that there are two types of people: those that can stop when they feel full (moderators), and those that need their conscious mind to intervene and remind them to stop even if their stomach says they can keep going (abstainers). I’ve even heard some people say those who can successfully eat mindfully are simply natural moderators. Whereas telling a natural food abstainer to stop consciously restricting food is bound to lead to them eating far beyond fullness with no idea when to stop.
After all that food fuckery is it any wonder that neither our bodies nor our brains have any idea what we need or even want to eat?
By 2022 I’d realised once and for all intuitive eating probably isn’t possible for me, and that’s likely a combination of the culture I live in and the type of person that I am. I’m now aware that there are people far smarter than me who are paid to make me eat more than my body probably needs to function well. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ve as much chance of mindfully eating a bag of Monster Munch as I do in turning down a free beanie hat. But rather than punishing myself for that and seeing myself as broken, I can choose another way and build a new relationship with food.
One solution is to forgo highly processed food and scientifically manipulated food altogether and wait to see if natural eating abilities return. But that seems pretty impossible in the culture we’ve created and the subsequent beliefs it has given us about food.
Also, Plato, the ancient philosopher and all-round pusher of good sense reckoned that taking the specialness and pleasure out of food – as intuitive eating says when they say to make it all neutral – is a bad idea. Instead, he suggested that we learn to look at things like food with a more holistic view and use our soul to help us guide our decisions.
Plato says that there are three parts of the soul: the rational or wisdom-loving part; the spirited or honour-loving part; and the appetitive or pleasure-loving part. He reckons that harmony occurs when we balance all three parts equally when making choices about how to live.
Our culture has chosen to see food through just two parts of the soul: hedonistic pleasure (taste), and rational wisdom (calories, nutrients, and health). But what it misses is including honourable values in our food wisdom. This means the type of world and/or types of communities that producing that food supports. For example, what kind of world is eating cheap, highly processed food supporting? What kind of world do caged eggs equate to?
Food is always more than just taste and calories. And both diet culture and intuitive eating try to squish it into those two boxes only. But what would happen if you were to see it as more than that? What if you were to see it as an extension of your values too?
I’ve learned that food rules ARE important to me. They’re an extension of my identity and a reflection of the type of world that I want to live in. But I also recognise that to work, they must also be adaptable, because I’m not stupid enough to believe that we are all privileged enough to live in a world where we can be solely value, pleasure, or wisdom-led. We are also led by wider forces like availability, time, money, and geography.
Some days I’ll feel more able to spend the time cooking than others. Some days I want revolution and to help overthrow cheap labour and the capitalism that’s tearing the world apart. Whilst I know on other days, I’ll only want to think of myself and my own selfish desires for the deliciousness of a Big Mac. Sometimes my wallet, geography, or the clock is a bigger deciding factor than my morals. And sometimes my need to feel fancy and decadent wins whereas other times a soup of dodgy-looking leftover veg hits the spot.
I’m creating an amazing relationship with food. But that isn’t down to behaving according to other people’s rules, not even anti-diet culture ones.
My relationship is becoming more secure because I’m becoming more secure in my relationship with myself and my own identity and values. But also because I’m learning to stop putting things like food into little segregated boxes given to me by culture.
The more I learn about who created those boxes and why, the easier I find it to stop putting parts of my life (like food) into them. And the more I learn about the value of integrating all my little boxes into one giant world-sized box, the more confident I feel about letting something wider than them be my guide.
I think today I’m just going to leave you with those lingering thoughts on boxes because I’ll be coming back to them again and again… Maybe sit with them next time you are choosing what to eat and remember who created the box and the food in it, and why.
I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for sticking with me on this journey. It’s helping me organise my thoughts so much, and I really hope that it’s bringing you value and helping you create your own Anti-Fitness Project. If you agree, please share the blog with your like-minded friends, and if you’re feeling super-generous here’s the link to buy me a coffee. I don’t expect any payment for sharing this information, but cash in this culture is always helpful!
Thank you in advance, you glorious weirdo, you! Here’s to creating a new culture together.