My wife works as a health coach. She became interested in taking control of her health after a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatment. She's an amazingly disciplined person. When she puts her mind to something she is 100% committed to it.
This will sound odd, but it was hard for me to watch her get healthy. She went on a strict (but healthy) diet and she lost a lot of weight fast.
So much of our life - up to that point - revolved around food. It was our primary social outlet: going to dinner with friends. It's also what we did for most of our dates: dinner and a movie.
When my wife decided to become a certified health coach, I became her second client. I knew I needed to lose some weight just so it wouldn't be so hard to tie my shoes. I've been a runner since 2013, but I was gaining weight in spite of all the running. I could still run, but had gained 40lbs.
I lost the weight, but for me, it was nothing more than a diet. For her, it was something entirely different.
- Fast forward 3.5 years. I joke with my kids that I've lost the same 10lbs 30 times. Unfortunately, I've gained them back 32 times. Of course, we're humans and we gain and lose a little weight all the time. It's the 20lb swings that aren't healthy.
Why is eating healthy so hard?
I want to get this out of the way up front. As humans, we seem to have an innate behavior of blaming external factors for our circumstances. In almost every case, nobody is forcing you to eat anything. We get to choose. So, the responsibility for healthy eating ultimately resides with each of us. Society, however, does its very best to make it hard to choose. But, the society in which we live in the United States is a product of our own making. The drive to have things as cheaply as possible, as perfect as possible, and as fast as possible have created that society. That is a topic for another day.
Before we get to a few reasons why healthy eating is so hard, let's look at a definition of healthy food from food activist Devon Nolen:
Healthy food means fresh, unprocessed, local foods that you have to wash to eat. It means foods that have less than 10 ingredients and no ingredients you can't pronounce. It means a connection to the source of your food, having access to beneficial, culturally-specific foods and having a safe place to enjoy them with your family and loved ones.
I don't subscribe 100% to Mr. Nolen's definition, but other topics for another day are identifying which unpronounceable ingredients are actually good for us to eat and how being connected to the source of your food may be impractical in many parts of the world.
Let's look at some of the ways we sabotage ourselves and ways society supports our self-sabotage.
Fast food is rarely good food
A few years ago, Healthline.com released an article called "13 Effects of Fast Food on the Body". You can find it here. The summary version of the article is this: because most fast foods are chemically processed foods that are high in sugar and sodium, all kinds of trouble can ensue. From headaches and blood sugar spikes to heart disease to diabetes, fast food, consumed regularly, will likely cause serious problems.
Fast food is addictive
This second problem is related to the first. All fast food companies are trying to run business that keep people employed, particularly those entering the workforce. In order for them to keep those people in jobs, the food has to taste good. Fast foods are made with ingredients our bodies get addicted to: sodium, high fructose corn syrup and other refined sugars, fats, and refined carbohydrates.
Fast food is, well, fast
According to a somewhat recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, every day in the United States, more than 1 in 3 adults (approximately 37%) eat some type of restaurant fast food.
We live in a time where more than 46% of fathers and mothers in the same household are employed outside the home in full-time work. As of 2020, nearly 20 million kids lived in a home with only 1 parent present. With so many mothers and some fathers in single-parent homes working full time, you can see where the difficulty emerges. So many hours spent working outside the home by so many parents is a major justification in letting fast food chains do the cooking. If you choose to cook, you potentially eat dinner much later in the evening. In a June 2020 study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers determined that "late dinner induces nocturnal glucose intolerance, and reduces fatty acid oxidation and mobilization, particularly in earlier sleepers. These effects might promote obesity if they recur chronically."
Translation: late dinner + early bed = potential for obesity.
In a 2017 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 21.2% of 12- to 19-year-old youth in the United States were classified as obese. Based on prior trends, in 2021, this number is undoubtedly higher.
In my own home, where my wife is a health coach and one or the other of us almost always has at least some time to cook, we still choose fast food once a week out of convenience.
Sit-down Portion Size
Suppose you opt not to get fast food, but instead go to a sit-down style restaurant that advertises healthy food options. You sit down and order your favorite crispy chicken salad with the house dressing. You pay little attention to the glycemic index, the total calorie count, or the type of calories of the food you're eating. Upon investigation, you discover that your favorite crispy chicken salad is made crispy in a deep fast fryer (as opposed to an air fryer) and is loaded with carbs (the breading and house dressing). The salad may weigh in at 1,400 calories or more. While the 2,000 calorie average is just that, an average, 70% of your caloric intake in a day shouldn't occur in one meal. Additionally, if the food has undergone processing, that will likely have increased the "staying power" of the food meaning a higher glycemic index.
Even though you're eating healthy the amount of food and the types of calories play a huge factor. When eaten frequently, even these healthier-than-fast-foods have the potential of becoming fat stores in the body.
Junk foods - or comfort foods as they are known euphemistically - are just that: foods that are loaded with sugars, carbs, fats, etc. and have little to no actual nutritional value. Of the foods mentioned above, however, these are the types of foods that appear to be the most highly addictive.
As I write this article, I am sitting on a balcony in Cancun above the ocean. There are fit and not-so-fit beach bodies everywhere. Ironically, I took a break from writing to walk to a convenience store to purchase some real chocolate and a sugar-loaded beverage. In the US, the chocolate isn't real (at least not the convenience store variety) and the beverages are all made with high fructose corn syrup or aspartame.²
The trip to the convenience store across from my hotel in Cancun brings me to my next point. The kinds of foods that are not good for us are the ones most readily available. In the United States, you can't drive around any densely populated areas without encountering a convenience store every couple of miles (or several within a mile, depending on the city). Research done by convenience.org indicates that there are roughly 151,000 convenience stores in the United States. Contrast that with the mere dozens of healthy restaurants in most states.
The ingredients of eating healthy at home aren't generally any more expensive than fast food and they're a lot less expensive than dining out, but the time component is what causes most people to struggle. If you want meal variety, it takes time. I love to cook and prepare healthy meals for my family, but I don't like feeding them dinner at 8:00 pm.
By now, you should be able to see the dilemma involved in healthy eating. The odds are stacked against us. Ultimately, it comes down to what we value. If I value eating healthy enough, I will figure out how to make it work. If I don't value it, society has plenty of alternatives at a fast food restaurant near me.
¹ Yes, I actually did go to a convenience store while writing this article so I could include it in the article. Of course, I also really wanted that chocolate and real-sugar beverage.
²I may never drink another soda in the United States again. The soda with real sugar was that good. Thankfully, that particular variety isn't available in the US yet.