This question is often asked by an observer watching an overweight or obese person eat something considered calorific. Maybe you’re the one doing the observing, or perhaps unknown to you, you are the observed? As mentioned in my previous blog, this fat shaming is not appropriate. But, on this occasion, I will be discussing the possible answer to the question asked above. This being another factor which is thought of as a cause of obesity.
Welcome to the Obesogenic Environment!
First, let’s look at how eating has changed over the years.
As a child growing up in a Caribbean household, we mainly ate home cooked meals. On Saturdays, we would often have Mum’s homemade Caribbean soup. On Sunday’s we would have a large meal of meat or poultry, rice and peas, and vegetables. Which would be filling the air with lovely aromas by the time we returned from church and Sunday School. This would be followed either by my then favourite, tutti-frutti ice cream, or fruit salad with evaporated milk. During the week, local businesses would close at 5pm, banks closed at 3pm and if you forgot to buy something form the shops on Saturday, you would have to wait until Monday before replenishing that forgotten item. Throughout the rest of the week, we would continue to have home cooked meals, but on a Friday we often had a takeaway meal consisting of fish & chips once a week. This was a routine in many Caribbean families. The only other takeaway food I knew of as a child was the deliciously golden pastry wrapped well seasoned beef or chicken pattie or my treasured 99 Flake from the ice cream van. Which my parents were certain that I could hear coming from a mile away, as I ran up to them screaming “ice creeeeeeam”
As I got older, I had pizza, Chinese food or Indian food only with friends outside of the home environment. I had my first McDonalds at 16 when they opened in branch in my local area of Harlesden. KFC was a staple after raving as a young adult, as they remained opened until 2am.
Nowadays, we are seeing our High Streets are filled with eateries, restaurants, coffee shops, burger restaurants, and fried chicken outlets. Many of us succumb to these tempting choices even when we are not hungry. Somehow, almost by magic, we can be triggered to eat. This is caused by Food Cues.
We can experience food cues which trigger us to eat when we are hungry, or by seeing or smelling food, listening to others talk about food or eating in front of us, feeling emotional or stressed and even doing certain activities. When we are cued to eat food, regardless of the reason, it can lead to overeating or at least poor eating choices. We have created links between our activities and our eating behaviours. For example, going to the cinema and eating a large bucket of popcorn, eating in front of the TV, having chocolate when stressed, having a cake with a particular cake eating friend etc. And we can also be triggered by food cues to eat through advertising.
And companies give a great deal of thought around how to entice you into eating their food.
Advertisements and even slogans are used to catch our attention. Chocolate companies very much like the cigarette companies in the past, would use healthy looking attractive slim active people to market their chocolate, or burger or other calorific foods. There’s nothing wrong in that. After all, calorific items can be eaten in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Mmmmmm I’m Loving It!
Over the years, advertising has changed from talking about the qualities of the food product, to adding emotional qualities or behavioural instructions. For example, Coca Cola’s current advertising slogan is “Taste the Feeling!”, but from 1886 to 1920, their most popular slogan was “Delicious and Refreshing”. While KFC continues to be “Finger Lickin’ Good!”, Kit Kat suggests that you should “Have a break, Have a Kit Kat!”. Mars used to say “A Mars a day, will help you Work, Rest or Play!”, which focussed more on the energetic boost you can have after eating their product. They changed their slogan in order to focus more on the ‘mental upliftment’ you can have through having a fun experience after eating their product. More recently, the Mars company was successful in winning £1 million of free advertising during the Paralympics to market their more lighter caloried product Maltesers while celebrating diversity by using disabled actors retelling true stories. Hopefully, it may have an impact on those who enjoy a fried deep fried Mars bar from their local chippy.
Advertisers also use cute baby animals to catch and hold your attention, while promoting their high sugar, high calorific items. A study completed in Japan’s Hiroshima University, found that images of baby animals including puppies and kittens can powerfully effect attention and concentration ( source: Public Library of Science aka PLOS One).
Out of the Mouth of Babes!
Recently, food adverts aimed at children during children’s TV viewing times have been banned. However, in a recent study by Cancer Research UK (CRUK), children participants responded to questions asking them how familiar they were with TV advertising, when they watched it and what effects it had on them. Most respondents were exposed to the food adverts during 7-9pm, when watching TV with their families.
Unlike gambling adverts which suggest that you “Gamble Responsibly” in the small print, or the warning on cigarette packets informing you that they can harm your health, we do not have such warnings in food advertising. Occasionally, you may notice the advice that their product can be consumed in small amounts as part of a healthy lifestyle. But unfortunately, that seems to be written on a family sized packet of some calorific item, which you are supposed to eat in smaller portions. And until recently, only the small portion information will be shown on the nutritional label. It is useful to know how many servings the product should yield. However, if you are anything like me, my idea of a portion often differs from that of the manufacturer. I do not take the time to weigh the recommended portion of cheese puffs before eating them. Admittedly, when I’m in weight gaining mode, the kitchen weighing scales are the furthest thing from my mind when I’m in the snack cupboard. Although, the bathroom weighing scales will soon torment me with the inevitable weight gain from my night feast.
There are now businesses which have collated all your local restaurants together for your eating pleasure. Now we don’t even have to leave our homes to get a restaurant quality meal. It can be order with a few swipes and taps on our mobile devices and delivered to our doors within minutes.
Food and Your Brain
In David Kessler’s book “The End of Overeating”, He explains how companies use food engineering in order to create food products which are so delicious, that they activate the neurotransmitters in your brain which are responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Such as dopamine and serotonin. When we have a surge of serotonin or dopamine, we will seek that same experience over and over again. We can get this effect from many foods, but mainly those which are sugar and/or fat laden. For some, like myself, this becomes a way to cope with stress.
In fact, the BBC reported on a study conducted by Dr David Lewis, in which couples had electrodes attached to their heads to measure the neuronal activity when they kissed or ate a piece of chocolate. The findings showed, that eating chocolate created more intensity and lasted four times the duration than kissing passionately. It also increased the heart rate significantly. http://bbc.in/2fETUWc But, don’t kick out your partner yet, as he/she can help you burn off the extra calories in a very fun pleasurable way!
Overall, we are bombarded by messages to eat 24 hours a day, and we often eat when we are not hungry because those messages or our feelings/stress levels seem to compel us to. Leading to weight gain, and judgement from others who are often affected in exactly the same way!
11st 4lbs – 2005 This was taken when I was just 8lbs away from my target BMI 25. I was thrilled at being size 12 for the first time in my life. But, my spine vertebrae was visible through my skin, along with my hips bones and I lost all the volume in my breasts. My skin sagged everywhere leading me to have a tummy tuck at a later stage.
I apologise for the delay in posting this new blog. I hope to post on a weekly basis in future. Thank you for the feedback I receive on my first posted blog.
How are you affected by the obesogenic environment?
Do you have a favourite place you like to buy food from even when you’re not hungry?
Let me know your thoughts?
Antoinette Niles Bsc (Hons) Psychology