It’s lunchtime, and I chose a sandwich which is quick and easy, but then spy a chocolate chip muffin on the next shelf and can feel my tastebuds tingle.
I know I shouldn’t really have it, but I have a busy afternoon ahead and I may need that extra bit of energy, especially at the end of a long week, so I can justify it to myself – and even go as far as to believe I deserve it!
In a situation like this which will, I think, feel familiar to many of us, it’s important to consider what effect hunger has on our decision-making process and what other motivations drive our choices? For example, eating at certain times can be a habit and so feel familiar: something quick and easy seems sensible if we are tired or time poor, the sugar in chocolate will give us both an energy and equally, if not more importantly, a mood boost, and we justify it by convincing ourselves that we deserve it. But what if we’re doing it all wrong?
There are so many reasons for eating which are deeply embedded in our emotional landscape as we learn from a very early age that food can be both a comfort and a threat, a reward or a punishment, a best friend or a worst enemy.
As a baby, we instinctively know we must eat to live but, when suckling at our mother’s breast, we also experience comfort, safety and connection and it is these emotions that we often try to replicate with food in our adult lives. The messenger then becomes the message and, in the search for the closeness that protects us from being alone, we risk subverting the purpose of food and start living to eat, increasing our consumption when the comfort the food gives us is short-lived. In most cultures and religions, food is used both as a celebration and as a penance so it is not surprising that we associate eating both with being both good and bad.
We are hearing more and more about the adverse effects of Ultra Processed Foods (UPF), from which much of the protein is removed and often only the carbohydrates remain. What this means is that, after eating such food, we are unlikely to be satisfied for long. That means we are likely to crave more which is not good for either our bodies or our minds.
We already understand that excessive alcohol use can significantly impair judgement but it may be less well recognised that a deficit in protein to the brain will reduce cognitive function and can therefore also lead us to make poorer choices for ourselves. In the past decade, in the UK and throughout Europe, the increased consumption in UPF has seen a corollary in the lowering of average IQ. Given the evidence that certain foods make it more difficult for us to make healthy decisions for ourselves and that there are so many causes for eating that have little to do with hunger, it is difficult to see how any diet or appetite suppressant can succeed in the longer term without significant changes in lifestyle to enable us to maintain good physical, psychological and cognitive health.*
The annual costs of obesity to the NHS run to about £6bn and costs the country as a whole around £58bn. It seems to me we are heading not only towards a physical health crisis but also, potentially, to damaging the cognitive capacity we need to remedy the situation ourselves.
Employees in Japan receive a bonus for maintaining a healthy weight and are put on probation if they are overweight. This is, admittedly, in a nation that has a culture of obedience and the measure is not seen as nannying but as good care and an opportunity to prolong life.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that such a scheme would be acceptable to people here. However, if we allow the situation to continue as it is and do nothing, I am concerned we risk being locked into a vicious cycle. That would leave us in the situation where the food we eat will increase our desire to eat the very foods that will cause us to get ill and obese and lead to a shortening of our active lives. We need to do more.
* The fitness coach, Joe Wicks, in an interview for the Times Radio podcast (and reported in The Times) stated that “medication might be a short-term solution but it doesn’t fix the mind and the brain and you can still overeat and go back to gaining weight”. As you might expect, he advocates exercise as a key aid to improving both mental and physical health.