Obesity has dramatically increased in the U.S. over the past several decades, and what Americans eat has a lot to do with it. In this article we’ll look at the links between processed food, supernormal stimuli, and obesity.
The following chart shows the trend, taken from the CDC.
Surprisingly, the percentage of people who are merely overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, has remained fairly steady. But the percentage of the obese, with BMI >30, and morbidly obese, BMI >40, has radically increased.
Naturally, the question is, why?
The following chart may be part of the answer. It shows the top ten sources of calories for Americans, and comes from the National Dietary Guidelines, 2010.
Virtually everything on here is garbage: high carbohydrate and/or high sugar, or cooked in cancer-causing vegetable oils, and with little nutrient content.
Grain-based desserts was the top calorie source. This category includes “cake, cookies, pie, cobbler, sweet rolls, pastries, and donuts”. Even in the old days, before people cared much about healthy eating, everyone knew that these kinds of foods made you fat.
Bread, pasta, pizza, and burritos are prominent among food sources. These are more empty calories that raise blood sugar and insulin and predispose to obesity.
Soda, energy drinks, and alcohol are the top liquid calorie sources.
Before you get too excited about “chicken and chicken mixed dishes”, thinking, finally, some protein, this category includes “fried or baked chicken parts and chicken strips/patties, chicken stir-fries, chicken casseroles, chicken sandwiches, chicken salads, stewed chicken, and other chicken mixed dishes”. In other words, mainly a lot of processed, frozen, and fast-food junk.
Why do people eat this stuff? I can think of a few reasons.
On this last note, that it tastes good, most people would certainly like to be lean, but they also want tasty food, and are unwilling to make the compromise.
Food companies have designed their products to be super tasty, even if that taste is of what we might call a low-rent, vulgar taste. This is the principle of supernormal stimuli.
Nobel Laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen developed the concept of the supernormal stimulus. He found, among other things, that birds would prefer to incubate a large, gaudy, artificial egg rather than their own. The artificial egg was more appealing and made the brain circuits associated with incubating behavior light up even more than the real eggs did.
The same concept can be applied to food. The junk food purveyors have taken great care to make their artificial foods as tasty as possible. Through intensive research, they’ve discovered what will do this.
Sugar is one such supernormal stimulus. It’s present in only small amounts in the ancestral environment, but because we seem to be attuned to seeking it out, putting large amounts in food makes that food extra tasty.
Arguably, other foods like pizza and donuts fall into the same category: combinations of ingredients that make for such tasty food that we can’t resist.
Nope. Ain’t gonna happen.
The obesogenic nature of the kind of foods that most people eat means that you must largely avoid them.
Because of the supernormal stimuli embedded in them, the best course of action in my opinion is to avoid them at all costs. Supernormal stimuli cause addiction, and they may make your steak and eggs, foods that you should be eating, less appealing.
For most people, unless they have plenty of money to throw around, this means preparing food and eating at home. Avoid the center of the grocery store, where processed junk and soda are sols, and shop around the outside, where you’ll find whole, unprocessed food like meat, cheese, eggs, and vegetables.
I have found a few options for eating out, such as a whole grilled chicken at my local Mexican eatery, but generally most eating out options are more expensive if you don’t want processed high-carb food.
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