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Food: Friend or Foe

I want to share with you about the problem of overeating.  I could start off with a lot of statistics which you have probably read most of already, and there will be room for some of them later, but I would like to start at the other end of the spectrum.  Silvie Granatelli is a ceramic artist who lives in Floyd, Virginia.  She is one of a small handful of professional ceramic artists who has spent a lifetime hand-making porcelain tableware.  Her career has been inspired by the centrality of food in our culture, and the sharing of food as one of the most important, if not paramount, human rituals.  This is what Silvie says, “Food – which foods are chosen from those available; how they are prepared, with whom, and when they are eaten; how much time is allotted to cooking and eating are things I think about as a potter in making tableware.  Food is one of the means by which society creates itself, and acts out its aims and functions.”  In her passion for making porcelain tableware, Silvie sees herself involved in this important human ritual that we all participate in on a daily basis.  Her pottery becomes a way to enhance and enliven an experience that is often taken for granted or performed rotely.  Silvie says she sees food as a cultural taproot that gives meaning to our lives.  She hopes that her work, “will shape and dramatize the ritual surrounding food.”

We need food to live.  We need to participate in its preparation and eating in order to be connected to each other.  For people of the Christian faith, the ritual of a meal is the preeminent religious ritual that is practiced as a way to embody the meaning of Christianity.

When one is having problems overeating, there is no such thing as a solution of abstinence.  Rather, the situation is more complicated.  Body weight is the result of our genetic makeup, our metabolism, our behavior, our environment, the culture and social economic status.  Of these factors, our behavior and environment are the two that play the largest role in causing us to be overweight and obese and are the areas for greatest attention for prevention and treatment.  Overweight and obesity have been labeled a national epidemic.  In 2003, the Center for Disease Control stated that nearly 65% of the US adult population is overweight or obese.  Overweight and obesity result from an energy imbalance.  We eat too many calories and do not get enough physical activity to expend the calories that are taken in.  But just looking at the picture in terms of calories taken in and physical activity engaged in is too simplistic.

There are two key perspectives for addressing the issue of overweight.  The first is the epidemiological perspective.  It is the same perspective public health officials have who seek to prevent the spread of AIDS or outbreaks of malaria.  The problem of overeating is seen as a community and cultural problem.  In this view, it is seen as important for our major cultural institutions, such as in schools and businesses to recognize the importance of developing strategies to address the issue of overeating, whether these strategies are through exercise programs or employee benefits that encourage exercise and wellness.  Because of the predominance in our culture of fast food that tends to be high in unhealthy calories, there is a lot to be said for the importance of a community approach to the problem of overeating and obesity.

But, in addition to the community perspective is our individual perspective.  This is where we are most affected, where the responsibility for change comes to rest with the overweight individual.  Because there are a number of factors that can contribute to obesity, no one person’s experience is like that of another.  There is no single understood cause.  What this means for each of us is that we need to understand the factors that may play into weight problems and evaluate how we can make wise choices.

Food can be addictive.  The addictive process is similar to the way alcohol affects certain individuals whose body chemistry becomes triggered so they repeatedly ingest alcohol in amounts harmful to the body.  Food and the neuro-chemical messengers that affect appetite are tied in to the basic instinctual wiring of the brain.  When a pattern of unhealthy eating occurs, it can be reinforced at the most primitive, biological level.  Prevention then is one of the keys to not overeating because it is always easier to have good eating habits than to change bad ones.  However, bad ones can be changed.  But once the body has developed a maladaptive response to food, making a change in eating habits may require the help of a trained professional in the areas of eating disorders.

We may not seem to have much choice over our compulsion to eat ice cream at ten o’clock at night in order to get the soothing experience, both tactilely and emotionally, from this particular food.  But we can, however, develop habits in our lives where the need to have calories at a particularly unhealthy time is much less likely to occur.  Before one becomes overweight, the focus should revolve around what kind of healthy patterns we have in eating, rather than agonizing over whether or not to eat a particular food.

Consider the following areas which affect our opportunity to set healthy patterns:

(1) Lifestyle influences.  The big factor here is – do you eat a lot of high calorie fast food?  There may be easy ways the patterns of doing this can be changed to healthier food.  The other big lifestyle factor is, of course, exercise.  Most lawyers spend all day in an office and get far less exercise than our body’s metabolism is designed to use calories up in.  Of course, good physical exercise is the cornerstone for good mental health and healthy aging.

(2) Psychological influences.  Food, and especially sugar, can be keys to trying to medicate unpleasant emotions.  One of the difficulties with food as a medicator is that the overeating that goes with medicating feelings often contributes to feelings of shame and quilt that creates the urge to overeat and over indulge again, thus a cycle is set up that is self-perpetuating.  Using food to solve the problem of unmet emotional needs is a major factor in contributing to overeating and obesity.  One way to get some insight into whether or not this is happening to you is to look at the food that is desired metaphorically at the time that there is the urge to overeat it.  If there is that urge to eat ice cream at ten o’clock at night, let this posit the question to you of what is the desire for sweetness in one’s life that is missing?  Is the missing sweetness that of close emotional relationships, or the sweetness of spiritual connection?  Meals eaten in silence or eaten alone are much less likely to fulfill the normal connective human needs of a meal ritual, and also in the process, much more likely to lead to overeating.  I think Silvie would say that one of the things she hopes her customers will experience when eating on her beautiful porcelain tableware, is that they will be more likely to pause to see both the beauty of the food and its presentation, to take time to enjoy its taste, to take time to enjoy the company that is being shared with the food.  Under these conditions, there is much less likelihood that one compulsively overeats.

(3)  Environmental influences.  Of course, the family in which you grew up in, and the way in which food in your family was consumed, will have a significant impact on how and what you eat.  Many of us grew up at the beginning of the growth of fast food in our culture and did not spend a lot of time enjoying family meals where everyone sat down together, where there was conversation and an opportunity to really enjoy the food.  Under conditions that emphasize positive social interaction when food is consumed, the chances of overeating are much less likely.  On the other hand, if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where dad was often drunk at the table and meals were taken in silence, the social messages around enjoying food may be very negative.

(4)  Genetic predisposition.  Of course, like many diseases that we now recognize as being chronic conditions, there is a genetic predisposition to obesity unrelated to a person’s environment or lifestyle.  Based on genetics, people metabolize food at different rates. Like caring for a family tendency to have diabetes, or other chronic conditions, it is important to understand your genetic predisposition in regard to food.

(5)  Medical conditions.  There are a number of medical conditions such as hypo-thyroidism, depression, and certain neurological problems, which can interfere with the body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.

(6)  Conditions of stress.  For many people the conditions created in the body by the body’s stress hormone reactions result in craving for foods that are often high in fat and carbohydrates. The longer stress hormones are maintained in the body, keeping the body at a heightened level of alert, the longer blood pressure levels will be elevated and certain fat cells will be formed.  Healthy ways to deal with stress are good habits to prevent being overweight.

(7)  Cultural influences.  Food consumption is only partially about the way the body obtains nutrition.  Food consumption is also about ways to nurture, to celebrate, to mourn, and to be involved in the most fundamental rituals in our lives.  Much of the trend toward overeating in the culture comes from a separation of the consumption of food from the sense of meaning in important daily and seasonal rituals.

(8)  Age and gender influences.  Middle age is one of the times when weight gain is most likely because of changes in metabolism.  There are also differences in the way men and women burn fat.  And, the desire for certain foods and energy levels is also affected by hormones that vary from time to time and throughout the lifetime.

There is a considerable down-side to overweight and obesity.  We are at significantly increased risks for many diseases and health conditions from being overweight and obese, including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers.  That is, many of the really bad diseases out there that will kill you.  Somebody mentioned to me the other day that the leading type of book that is sold in bookstores today is cookbooks followed in short order by diet books.  I don’t need to be repeating information here about the vast quantity of information there is out there for individuals about dieting and weight control.  Rather, what I would like to stress is that being overweight is a complicated condition, and even though it is common, if you suffer from being overweight, you can benefit enormously by getting a thorough assessment of your weight problem, which considers all the various influences on being overweight that are outlined here.

If you are not overweight, you should still consider these factors in terms of assuring healthy eating habits.  Look at your negative food habits.  We are much less likely to overeat if we do not eat alone or on the run.  The rituals around eating and the presentation of food which have always been a part of our culture carry the keys to healthy eating.  Europeans spend much more time in the ritual of eating, eat less food and are a lot less overweight than Americans.  The Slow Food Movement that started in Italy in 1986 exemplifies this approach with its motto: “Twice as good, half as much.”  Returning to good social rituals in eating is one of the fundamental bulwarks against allowing overeating to become a problem in our lives.  More time to enjoy food and to enjoy the company of others in preparing and sharing food is perhaps the most overlooked anecdote to the current list of ways to fight being overweight.

– by Don Carroll

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