WELLNESS
11/19/2015 02:56 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

Why We Need To Stop Treating Overeating As A Personal Failure

One researcher believes willpower is just part of the problem.
Americans eat too much, according to the CDC.
shutterstock
Americans eat too much, according to the CDC.

America has a problem.

As the latest data released last week by the Centers For Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics confirmed, far too many of us are overweight. The number of obese Americans is actually rising at a rate not seen in over a decade, putting them at increased risk of a number of serious health issues including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

One culprit behind the obesity surge is overeating, an issue that Kima Cargill, a professor in clinical psychology at the University of Washington-Tacoma, believes is often misunderstood, especially at a time where stigmatization of overweight individuals has been shown to lead to more overeating.

In a new book, The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism, Cargill relies on a wide spectrum of empirical research and her own work with clients to argue that overeating should not be seen as a sign of an individual’s lack of willpower but, instead, as part of a much larger conversation on how food is aggressively and dishonestly marketed to consumers. 

Cargill recently spoke with The Huffington Post about what she feels is behind America’s overeating problem -- and how we fix it. 

Why was it so important to you to take this approach, focusing on how consumerism impacts overeating?

One of the themes that has run through my career is just that consumer culture undermines our wellbeing in so many ways, and two big guilty parties of that are the food industry and pharmaceutical industry. They have so much impact on our wellbeing when they’re supposed to be helping our wellbeing, ostensibly. I really think that story needs to be told.

I sense a struggle between viewing consumers as victims of this sort of marketing being used against them while still possessing their own free will. You even state in the book that Big Food can’t be totally blamed for this. Why not? We certainly did in the case of Big Tobacco.

I do struggle with reconciling those two views. I have been criticized in a way because in truth there has been way too much emphasis on personal responsibility. Again, I think the discipline of psychology has been quite complicit in this cultural narrative of personal transformation and the free will to change. That’s part of the American psyche, that we can make ourselves into whatever we want and make these changes, but you’re right to compare these industries to Big Tobacco. These are incredibly deceptive practices that not only undermine free will; they literally hijack peoples’ brains. They’re like neurological Trojan horses.

At the same time though, as a psychologist, I don’t have a big problem with overeating, but like most people has become more of a struggle for me as the food landscape has changed. I see the tricks I play on myself and the rationalizations and self deceptions I can get into myself. I know a lot about these things and how they work and I still do them. There is a kind of appeal to scapegoat, to say "this isn’t my fault the food industry is making these foods irresistible and seductive," but I think sometimes we get a little complicit in that narrative too. I want there to be a balance.

Kima Cargill, a professor in clinical psychology at the University of Washington-Tacoma, blames aggressive marketing for Amer
Bloomsbury Academic
Kima Cargill, a professor in clinical psychology at the University of Washington-Tacoma, blames aggressive marketing for America's overeating problem.

I have to admit I came away from reading this feeling sort of helpless. What do you suggest that someone struggling with overeating do?

I had envisioned the book as having a much more hopeful ending that was extremely focused on empirically-based solutions. As I did all the research and writing, I was almost, I guess, what I would call politically depressed by the end of writing the book. It’s a lot different from what I thought it would be. When I saw how powerful these industries are and especially the congressional support they have with lobbying and the way that many members of Congress have acted to disempower the [Food and Drug Administration] and food regulation, I felt quite hopeless.

Since I finished the book, I have been focusing a lot more on solutions. There are a lot of things we can do in our own lives that can affect broader change. Because I view overeating as simply another form of overconsumption, I see the solution having to do with pushing back against consumer culture. Things like shielding ourselves from so much marketing and advertising, using ad blockers, watching PBS NewsHour instead of local news with a lot of commercials, unsubscribing from catalogs.

Also, it’s about reducing variety. What the research shows is that when we have a lot of variety and so many things to choose from, we just end up consuming more. If you’re at a party with four kinds of chips instead of one, studies show we’ll eat more chips. I keep pretty healthy snacks, like nuts, at home but I noticed that if I’d have almonds, peanuts, pistachios and cashews in the cupboard, I’d wind up eating more. Now I just buy some pistachios and when they’re gone, I’ll switch to cashews.

LYFE Kitchen's margherita flatbread. The LYFE chain has locations in seven states and offers healthier fast food options.
LYFE Kitchen/Facebook
LYFE Kitchen's margherita flatbread. The LYFE chain has locations in seven states and offers healthier fast food options.

There has been interesting coverage, like this New York Times piece, lately about how consumers are becoming more aware of all these issues and legacy brands are responding with products that are healthier or more sustainable. Do you see this as genuine progress or just greenwashing?

I think that is the question on everybody’s mind who’s doing work on food right now. One thing I wish that Times op-ed would have talked about -- even if it wasn’t the piece’s purpose -- was the trend of people who have moved away from shopping as it has conventionally been done. We’re not going to malls anymore, big department stores are closing down and research is showing consumer spending is down in many areas. These trends indicate to me that there may be something going on in the collective unconscious. We’re starting to question the meaning of all this consumerism and people have a funny feeling about it, thinking it’s not satisfying them in the way they’re thinking it will.

What a lot of Big Food is doing now is developing these other so-called healthy or diet products to appeal to people who are trying to be more focused on good nutrition. Many times what I see happen when people are trying to solve the problem of overeating, they’re just turning to alternate forms of consumption, consuming supplements, pills, energy bars or shakes, rather than just saying, "OK, I’m just going to consume less."

At the same time you’re calling for less variety in our diets, we’re seeing a foodie culture continue to spread as people are encouraged to try more and more different types of food. How do you balance your message with a culture that seems to be its antithesis?

What’s great about capitalism is innovation and variety, giving the consumer a voice. Clearly that works in so many ways that can drive prices down and it’s just fun. We like it! But having variety also speaks to having healthy options. There are chains like LYFE Kitchen, which offer a little bit more expensive kinds of fast food, but very healthy. Those are great and that’s variety, so I would never want to undermine that or discourage innovation.

My concern is when I think about how many kinds of Doritos there are now. There used to be one kind: Nacho Cheese. Now there are 17 different kinds. Maybe one way to think about it, with the Doritos for example, is that it’s not just variety, it’s that the choices are these really over-stimulating flavors: Hot wings, Sriracha, jacked-up, Bacon, 3D, whatever chips. Variety and overstimulation together, I think, is where we get into this danger zone and where you start sort of activating this reward system in the brain and wrecking your palate where if you eat those kind of Doritos, if you just go and have a real piece of cheese, it’s not going to be sexy. It’s going to be kind of boring because it doesn’t have that flavor explosion. I think that sort of flavor arms race evident in a lot of so-called hyper-palatable foods is maybe the real problem.

In the book, you point to the slow-living and slow-food movements as a source of optimism. What are some other promising solutions to this problem of overconsumption that you see springing up?

I think there’s been a real shift lately in schools getting soda machines and fast food out of the lunch room. There’s a trend there that’s reversing and that’s tough for underfunded schools to do. It’s a sacrifice for schools to take those away, but I think there’s a real sense among a lot of educators and probably parents who put pressure on them that this was the right thing to do, so they had to do it and figure out the money part later.

I also know a lot of folks at the University of Washington where I work who are urban planners who study both how food placement and food accessibility, as well as other features of the built environment, effect nutrition and exercise. A lot of young urban planners are designing neighborhoods differently, placing grocery stores and markets differently so I think there’s a lot of hope in these young people who are really going to determine what cities are like in the future.

What is the single biggest lesson you hope people will [take away] from your book?

I think the message is that willpower is overrated. We think we overeat because of failures in willpower, but that’s only half the story. I really do want people to understand what they’re up against and not just think they’re personal failures.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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