Food addiction is so prevalent that it's actually normalized. We joke about it. We share comedic memes about losing self-control. Even though it's entirely manageable AND the leading cause of death in the developed world by a massive landslide, we've come to accept it as a given and moved our focus onto less urgent and less prevalent issues.
Until you've worked with thousands of clients for well over a decade, you have only suspicions and anecdotes about people's behavior. After that, you have data. With data comes the inevitability that you can no longer believe what you want to believe so much as you have to believe what the data says. The data is clear: most people are severe addicts. Many are high functioning. But they are one tiny perceived stressor away from crumbling under the pressure. Just about everyone is in an abusive relationship with food.
Once you pause and contemplate this, it is really kind of an oddity. In any other subject, we feel free to at least discuss how much external control and imposition to put on resources and goods. But to even suggest that we think about self-regulating (forget about government control for a minute) our food intake as a moral imperative is an offense of such great magnitude that I can't find a single article on it outside of overpopulation debates. In a world of overabundance for some people while there is scarcity of resources for all, isn't there a debate to be had about the immorality of persistent overeating?
And I don't just mean for the sedentary individual. I mean the active people too. Per kilo, active people use up even more resources. Thus, there's a sort of moral paradox with which to wrangle even after people incorporate healthy behaviors. Each calorie comes at a fossil fuel and carbon cost. And it's not a small percentage increase. It's a factored equation, because with each addition comes the additional need and usage of that person, which, in turn, fuels even more consumption and consequently the exorbitant health care costs which predominantly come with end-of-life care.
I don't bring this up to judge anyone. It's my own cross I've had to bear being a fitness professional. For me, the most outwardly "fit" presentation I can have is, from a certain point of view, immoral. It takes a lot of food. At the same height, I've been around 160lbs all the way up to around 290lbs. Even somewhere in the middle, the total cost of being an active and lean 225lbs is substantially higher than if I accepted being a smaller person. I've had this discussion with peers of mine as they are obsessing over being more and more heavily-muscled: is it really ethical and moral to be above a certain bodyweight? Is it moral to burn 2000 calories in workouts?
I don't have the answer. In my own cost-benefit analysis, it's a difficult juggling act. In part, the future of my children depends on what other people think they know about me from my appearance. Many people support a strength coach simply by how irresponsible that person is. If he's an orthorexic, selfish, drug addict, many people will much more gladly part ways with their hard-earned dollars to support that than they would to support a more knowledgeable but balanced and healthy coach. Do I risk shortening my life by carrying inhuman amounts of muscle and/or inhumanly low body fat percentage just so I can indulge the ignorant and errant beliefs of laypeople or even industry peers? Luckily, I've seen that the most successful periods in my own career and business have been when I wasn't strict on my program. But it's still something I wonder about a lot.
I suppose some of the difficulty in confronting this pandemic is exactly my own struggle: what is actually the best outcome? It's easy to conclude broad generalizations: mostly, people should be more active and eat less. Ok. Most will agree. It's so non-threatening and blasé. But then every discussion after that is an overgrown thicket, not so easy to navigate. And really, I even have to interject here, because many people who are struggling with body composition are undereating or at least undereating fiber, protein, and greens.
Tell me this: if your friend gets drunk every single day, goes to the liquor store every day, and the bar every night, even though he has a packed wine cellar and liquor cabinet at home, what might you think? So here's the kicker: your body has more energy on it than you can use in several months; why do you need to eat every few hours? It might be that you have a problem. I'm not saying you do. I'm saying think about it. Because even modest daily eating could be a problem if you already have massive excesses of energy available.
Specifically I can tell you this: everyone fights tooth and nail to overeat. It's baked into our instincts. Even when we know food is all around, we don't believe it at our core. Your blood and liver alone carry over 2,500 calories. That's not factoring in muscle glycogen, other tissue reserves, or the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of units of energy packed into a "normal" weight individual's body fat. The fact that anyone is stressing about their next meal is alarming.
Experts agree that food tracking can help, and restriction can prove beneficial at least in the short term. But what I've found most profound about these is that the individual must confront herself with her lies. Strict food tracking disabuses people of their equivocations. I've performed over 10,000 consults, and in every single one the people swear up and down they "eat pretty healthily." One-hundred percent of participants have told me they are pretty balanced most of the time. Then, when I say, "tell me precisely what you had the last three days," a very different picture emerges. Firstly, they say, "this isn't typical." Then, when I ask what is typical, they still paint an abysmal scene.
My buddies and I have had this discussion many times. It's not uncommon in religious settings for preachers to rail against some sinful lifestyle immediately before everyone feasts themselves right into gluttony. In fact, when is the last time anyone heard a sermon which damns the gluttons? We just won't touch the subject, because everyone is guilty.
We may see Jay Leno as wasteful with hundreds of vehicles. We may see non-philanthropic wealthy people as immoral. We may get bent out of shape about increased military spending while decreasing education spending. But why don't we see the aggregating of energy via food as reprehensible? Isn't hoarding calories a sort of greed even? As if we are Scrooge, we already have too much, hate to spend a single penny, and every moment obsess and yearn for even more. In the abstract, I know people agree. And in the concrete, I know people who go all the way to the other end of the spectrum with disempowered self-loathing. That isn't the point. Empower people for change: acknowledge the sin without vilifying the sinner.
It's a difficult conversation to have with oneself:
I live in excess.
That needs to change.
These are the behaviors which are unnecessary and harmful.
Start doing necessary and helpful ones instead.
It sounds reasonable. Why then does execution elude almost every person in the developed world?
Familiarity. It's familiar. We already do it, and it hasn't killed us yet. Ergo, it can't be THAT bad, right? Ah, it's such a good sounding rationalization to help us avoid making a change. That is the hallmark of addiction, after all. It's so obvious. This IS addiction: the compulsion to act a certain way when you know it isn't best. While in the stranglehold of addiction, you will be able to use the logical/rational mind to acknowledge a "bad" behavior while refusing to adopt the "good" behavior. People say, "I know what to do; I just don't do it." You're an addict. And I would argue that you don't actually know what to do. You simply acknowledge that alternative behaviors or thought-patterns are more beneficial.
Good. You've taken the first step. That's the easy part.
Implementing alternative behaviors is the actual "what to do." That's why it's so ironic that people boastfully proclaim knowing "what to do" while not doing it. But before we get to "what to do" or even "how to" stay on track, let's examine "why."
Why should we change?
Superficial reasons abound. And I have to admit that they drive people in the short term. Severely insecure people may even be able to use superficial reasons in the long term. But are physical looks really a big enough "why"? I don't think so. I would argue that even the severely insecure people who are driven to be outwardly fit-looking most of the time have a "why" which spans well beyond the looks. They feel weak or inadequate, obsessing about real or imagined slight "imperfections"; and the obsession gives them a feeling of control and agency. Curiously, the same percent of gym-goers who "succeed" (about 1 in 50) is identical to the approximated prevalence of body dysmorpic disorder (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181960/) in the general populace.
But, let's say you don't hate yourself. Let's assume you actually have some healthy acceptance of who you are. Now then, for the mentally healthy individual, what is the "why" that's big enough to compel change? Do you want to raise your chances of knowing your grandchildren? Do you want to be fit and capable into your old age? Do you want to get off of medications? Do you want to be able to climb stairs without being winded? Do you want to raise your chances of fertility? Do you want to lower risk of cardiac event and cancers? No one can find your "why" for you. You have to discover it. But I think if we can popularize the centrality of morality in the equation, we may advance the cultural "why." That is, if we can stop avoiding the seriousness of this pandemic addiction, and confront it, we can more soberly assess our need for change.
I understand the wall ahead. People fear (and rightly so) fat-shaming. It makes food addiction a bit different and harder to tackle than other forms of substance abuse. There are thin people who have a far worse overeating disorder than most obese people. That's why this discussion has to have a bit more nuance. We can't assume someone is struggling with food addiction by looks. We can assume it because they live in the developed world. It's everyone. As a matter of fact, the people I've known who are the worst food addicts are gym rats and cardio junkies who use activity to shroud their compulsions and purge their overeating. What I've discovered through intermittent fasting in the past 7 years is that we don't need that much food. Many active people are excessively active because they haven't figured out they can reduce their intake by A LOT.
The human body will adapt. You can run a muscular built athletic body with less than 2,000 calories per day. I've done it. Three, four, five, ten thousand calories are unnecessary even for some highly active competitive athletes. Dr. D'Agostino deadlifted 500lbs for 10 reps after ONE WHOLE WEEK OF FASTING. Studies have conclusively shown that participants can build muscle in a calorie deficit even (https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/103/3/738/4564609). So all the excuses are just bogus. We are addicted. Typical eating practices in the fitness world are excessive regardless, and just ignorant sloppy programming. Brilliant sleep hygiene shuts off catabolism (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21550729). I would argue that exceptional sleep is more powerful for muscle-building than another 1,000 calories per day or even anabolic drugs. But the "bros" don't know actual science. So the same B.S. keeps getting parroted in every fitness article and magazine. And the poor helpless laypeople keep believing these idiots, because they're celebrity trainers or online celebrities.
When we start doing the math on the needless extra 500-2000 consumed calories per person per day in the wealthier developed world (not to mention the accompanying food waste number - https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140617-food-waste-tristram-stuart-hunger-gleaning/), it's not a small issue. It's enough to feed the other 6 billion people and have food left over. So, yes, our individual misbehavior with food is a moral issue on par with any other excess usage or consumption.
If we can acknowledge the seriousness of our collective problem, I feel the "how" will take care of itself. Right now, excess is held on a pedestal, both the excesses of caloric expenditure in exercise and the consequential excessive consumption of food. However, once overeating is a genuine societal taboo, the sociological pressures will take over. In the meantime, individuals have to figure out "how" on their own.
How to How
"How" is both straight-forward and tricky. How will you stop the overeating? Address three things: hunger, cravings, and mental illness. You can probably guess which item is straight-forward and which are tricky.
Hunger is easily suppressed through a committed three day fast, flipping the ketogenic switch, and/or stimulants like green tea or coffee, and/or choline-rich food or choline supplementation. I've helped clients wipe out overeating with choline supplementation alone.
Cravings are different that hunger. They appear to be linked to subsets of amino acids and specific micronutrients in addition to choline. And, since most people are protein and micronutrient-deficient to begin with, this craving issue tends to only get worse as people reduce their food intake. In medically-supervised weight loss programs wherein people are effectively starving, they manage this through IV solutions and/or high grade multivitamins and amino acid/trace mineral complexes. In my experience, sea salt throughout the day goes a long way. A lot of clients hedge their bets with a multi or trace mineral supplement. I don't have hard data on it; but I still suspect tryptophan and lithium are at the core of this, since they are involved in governance and synthesis of other neurotransmitters (see here: https://psychopharmacologyinstitute.com/mood-stabilizers/mechanism-action-lithium-illustrated-review/ and here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13261). I do have a fair bit of anecdotal evidence that these help. Also, Dr. John Grey (yes, the "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" guy) has long recommended looking at these to curb all iterations of hyperactive and hyperemotional disorders.
Once hunger and the physical portion of cravings are initially addressed or totally resolved, we are still sometimes left with latent conditioning and a profoundly self-destructive pathology. People are used to shooting themselves in both feet with two double-barrel shotguns; so there's something threatening about treating oneself respectfully and healthily.
I have a lot of experience with this third piece, personally and professionally. Actually, I have far more experience with this third piece than the hunger and craving components combined. I get it. And there is no secret or 5 step outline which turns active sabotage into self-empowering growth. But I can tell you this: the serenity prayer is where you better begin and keep returning.
The pre-conscious and unconscious portions of self-sabotage are tough. They aren't impossible. But they're tough. You can't control them directly. You can't even fully control the conscious brain. But that conscious brain, my friend, is where we must start.
Add in one small behavior that is at odds with self-sabotage. Don't sacrifice. Don't give up anything. ADD in something. I can tell you from my life and from tens of thousands of coaching hours, people don't sacrifice for good. Just forget about sacrifice altogether. Look for additions.
From additions, there will be consequential subtractions. This allows you to subconsciously and pre-consciously opt to self-sabotage less. It's a sneaky, tricky, but effective way to get your own brain on your side.
Learn consistency. Additions are only as good as they persist. Your evil brain will come up with every good-sounding excuse to discontinue these healthy additions. So, once implemented, you have to imagine you are in a war for your life, because you are. Your brain is trying to end every good thing you do for yourself. Go to war!
The war for consistency is never ending. Each day it begins anew. But you know how this works: the longer you've implemented positive behaviors, the more they are habitual and on autopilot.
You may be scratching your head at this point, because, after all, I did mention fasting. And I just directed you to "not sacrifice." How's that go together? Actually, quite perfectly. The time and energy commitment with regard to food is exhausting. Not-eating is a a massive savings of time, money, energy, and decision-making budget. The act of fasting is clear cut, yet doesn't necessarily deprive you of anything except stored bodyfat. You aren't confronted with "making the right decision" six times a day if you only eat once. And as long as you still ensure you have sufficient nutrients within that one or two meals, it's very difficult (not impossible though) to "go off the rails."
That said, people like familiarity. And the "three meals a day" or four, five, six, ten meals a day with snacks is so baked into people's wiring that the concept of fasting can be too big a step and too foreign an idea for many people. Most people are leptin resistant and their organ function (like gluconeogenesis) is broken. So, although fasting is actually the perfect fit for unhealthy people, it is that much more painful for the unhealthy person, because his system doesn't work the way it should (that is, we should be just peachy without food for days). People are inefficient, incapable of accessing the millions of calories on their bodies, and constantly yearning for more calories. Confronting this egregious malfunction is painful. And it takes time to return the body to proper function.
If not the addition of efficiency that comes with fasting, what to add? Again, add anything that counters self-sabotage. It could be a morning walk. It could be a multivitamin. It could be coaching. It could be a support group. It could be water intake.
How to Choose Additions
It has to get an initial and immediate "yes!" emotional response from within you. If you consider an addition and even begin to think, "I can," "I'll try," or "I could," then just forget it and move onto considering some other addition. Your visceral response HAS to be an unwavering "I WILL."
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say affirmatively that a new behavior makes sense and that they will commit to trying it, and then, after just a few days, they don't even begin to implement the change. If it's not "I WILL," it's "I WON'T." If it's not "I DO," it's "I DON'T."
Finally, leave room for troubleshooting and experimentation and errors. When you embark on the journey, you will find that some additions were non-starters and you didn't have your heart in them. That's called FEEDBACK, not failure. I've met with a handful of people briefly over the years who "try" one new behavior, find that it wasn't the right fit, and, instead of simple reevaluation, they take this to mean they shouldn't work on health and fitness at all. That's a total misunderstanding of the learning process. No one is good at math the first time. Even savants aren't good at piano the first time they've seen and heard one. A fit lifestyle is borne out of skills which must be developed. Don't you dare pretend like the skills which lead to a fit lifestyle are present or absent. They are built. Build them.
Likewise, I have had many people over the years tell me I should formalize my "program" into a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all eBook or pitch. The amount of ignorance and naietvy with this thinking is incredible. No two people learn the same way, are motivated the same way, or succeed in the same manner. They just don't. Pretending like they do is part of the problem. Be a pragmatist, not an ideologue. If one person thrives with Paleo and another with Veganism, so be it. If it works, it works. I have ZERO interest in scoring worldview debate points. We have to help people, regardless of what we WANT to be right. We have to stop caring about being right at all, and simply focus on being effective.
Ending the food addiction pandemic isn't going to be easy. People don't like sensible change. But we can all agree SOMETHING has to change, since the highest risks of death in the developed world are connected to our overeating. Societally, hopefully we can come to agree that grown adults just don't need to eat all the time, all day, every day, with our whole lives built around the abuse of food. Individually, we can address hunger, cravings and our own self-sabotage through additions, consistency, understanding "will" versus "won't," and learning to accept feedback as we develop new skills.