Much attention has been paid to the eating habits of Olympians in recent days. Michael Phelps was reported to consume up to 12,000 calories a day, just to keep up his weight while engaging in a grueling training program. That’s a lot of calories, but many Americans match that without ever getting a fraction of an athlete’s workout.
Most of us overindulge once in a while and stray from a healthy diet. When overeating turns into addiction, however, it can become a serious health issue. Compulsive eating, a.k.a. binge eating disorder, can lead to food intake worth 10,000 to 20,000 calories in one seating.
Our Culture Encourages Consumption
Including Excessive Food Intake
According to the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA), an estimated 3.5 percent of American women and 2 percent of American men have binge eating disorder. That’s about eight million combined. While these numbers are disconcerting, it is doubtful that they reflect the real proportions, considering that two thirds of Americans are now overweight and one third is obese.
Binge eating is associated with eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, and eating rapidly. In many cases, binge eaters feel embarrassed, guilty or even disgusted about their behavior, but still can’t stop themselves. Does that sound completely unfamiliar?
For a long time, compulsive eating disorders have been thought of primarily as a women’s issue, however, that assessment has been questioned by recent studies. Men seem just as prone to reaching for food for reasons other than actual hunger.
The causes of eating disorders are still largely unknown. Family history, biological factors and psychological issues are the most cited. Many sufferers have a history of so-called yo-yo dieting, meaning they have lost considerable amounts of weight, only to gain it all back and often add more.
All these factors may play a role on an individual level, but what’s left out is the fact that we live in a society that encourages constant consumption, including food consumption. The problem isn’t so much that people lack self-control, but that our food environment is so toxic, said Dr. Kelly Brownell, professor at Yale Rudd Center For Food Policy & Obesity. America’s roads are lined with fast food restaurants, our supermarket aisles overflow with unhealthy processed foods, snacks and candy, our kids are bombarded all day long with TV ads for junk. It’s the ubiquity and easy availability of food that changes our behavior toward it.
Among the toxicity signs, Dr. Brownell lists cheap foods of low nutritious quality (highly processed, high in fat, sugar and salt), ever-increasing portion sizes, predatory advertisement (especially to kids), and decline of physical activity.
All of this is well known and abundant information is available to the public. Still, there is no sign of reversal of the current trends. Why? The answer may be found in our culture. Moderation is not encouraged in our society. On the contrary. We are given to believe that bigger is always better, that having more is what we should aspire to. That informs our attitude towards money, cars, housing, entertainment and, of course, food. Just look at the ratings of popular TV shows like Adam Richman’s “Man v. Food,” or “Best Sandwich in America,” or “All You Can Meat” with Chuey Martinez on the Travel Channel. These programs have huge followings and fan clubs where imitators can brag about their own excessive dining experiences. For a more discriminating audience, Travel + Leisure magazine has compiled a list of the top all-you-can-eat buffets from New York to Las Vegas to Singapore.
We keep losing the battle against overeating, binge eating, pigging out, whatever you want to call it, with all its dismal health consequences, unless we implement broader-scale policies that promote not only healthier food choices but also more responsible consumer behavior across our society, according to Dr. Brownell. “It’s important for us to look at this from a public health point-of-view, where we’re not so concerned with how overweight and individual is, but how overweight the population is,” he said. Perhaps, at that point, if we ever reach it, it will be easier for each and every one of us to make the necessary changes for ourselves.