Mastering Food Obsession

US News

I was privileged last week to join Mika Brzezinski, along with her co-host Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC's Morning Joe program, to talk about Mika's new book, "Obsessed." I am further privileged to appear throughout the book, in very good company, apparently as something of a vicarious consigliore. Mika and I met face-to-face for the first time on the set of the show.

Mika's book is all about food obsession. But more particularly, it is about the intensely personal side of food obsession. Mika tells her own story, and her struggle to maintain the perfect, slender, on-air appearance for which she is known.

[See Binge Eating Disorder: A Diagnosis for Healing.]

The gist of "Obsessed" is that Mika has struggled with a sort of food obsession while always looking thin (too thin, if anything) and beautiful. The book chronicles her efforts to confront and admit the truth, to herself and others, and shift her focus from our often distorted cultural version of beauty to health. Mika tells of her efforts to get to a healthy relationship with food, which in her case meant gaining some weight, in tandem with the efforts of her friend, Diane Smith, for whom it meant losing over 70 pounds. Mika emphasizes that her struggle has been much the same as Diane's, and certainly no less hard.

I thank Mika now, as I did on the show, for paying her difficult honesty forward to empower others.

Mika paints a very intimate portrait of food obsession. I want to make the case that food obsession is about as entirely impersonal as anything can get. Food obsession is really an issue for all of humanity. Food obsession is about our entire species - and frankly, many other species as well.

[See A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]

Food obsession is native to Homo sapiens and all species for whom calories have historically been a rate-limiting element in the struggle to survive. To put it bluntly, we are hard-wired to be obsessed with food, and sex, because we are hard-wired to survive. Survival is the bedrock to which the roots of our deepest, and most universal impulses reach.

Food is fundamental to our personal survival. Sex is fundamental to the survival of our genes, and thus of our lineage and our species. And so normal human beings are somewhat obsessed with food and sex.

Human beings not obsessed with food during the many ages during which it was hard to get enough probably didn't get enough - and so yielded to malnutrition or starvation. Human beings not similarly obsessed with sex may not have competed to mate and so failed to pass on the genes that made them sexually complacent. Both tales end the same way: Ancestor candidates who starved before mating, or declined opportunities to mate, passed on no genes because they had no offspring. And people who have no offspring, let's face it, make very poor ancestors.

[See How to Conquer Food Cravings.]

All of us around today had far better ancestors than that. We had ancestors who did pursue food diligently enough to survive long enough to mate, just as we had ancestors who mated when they had the chance. Our presence here today is the only evidence we need to prove both!

So sex and food are, fundamentally, native obsessions. The trouble is, our native obsession with food now takes place in a very non-native habitat. We are adapted to a world in which calories were relatively scarce and hard to get and physical activity unavoidable; and we find ourselves contending with a world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get and calories unavoidable. Such a dramatic mismatch between adaptation and circumstance is fuel on the fire of Mika's obsession, and everyone else's. A great deal of mental anguish, in some cases the genuine psychopathology of eating disorders, and cultural dysfunction ensues.

That creatures don't tend to do well outside their native habitat is far from surprising. We have, of course, a very well known aphorism referring to just that scenario: a fish out of water.

[See 10 Things The Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

Homo sapien adaptability is so extreme, we have seemingly forgotten we even have a native habitat. But of course, we do; and a land of golden arches and high-fructose corn syrup isn't it!

Our culture is not only obsessed with food, but rather crazy about it. Watch TV for a while, and you are apt to see ads for copious portions of highly processed junk and weight-loss programs in immediate proximity. We can't get enough, even when we know we are getting too much, and are willing to pay to get more and then pay to get the adverse effects of the excess fixed. So, is there intelligent life here?

[See Top Recommended Health Products: Diabetes Health.]

Intelligent, yes. But dealing effectively with the challenge of food obsession? Not even close.

How do we fix the problem? For starters, by understanding the origins of the problem in our culture. For another, by recognizing how deep these currents run.

In a culture that reveres wealth and often neglects health, money is just a new-age surrogate for food. After all, we make dough, win bread and bring home the bacon. We have long used food to demonstrate love and generosity and continue to do so even when the foods we share in the quantities we share them may speed our loved ones toward their encounter with an endocrinologist, coronary bypass or bariatric surgery.

We can, when we are ready, rectify this mess. We can update the love we give, and we can update our culture. We can treat health with the respect we show to wealth. We can make healthy, rather than skinny, the common aspiration. We can trade up our food choices and learn to love food that loves us back. We can eat closer to nature and do ourselves and the planet a favor. We can eat mostly plants.

[See Plant-Based Diets: A Primer.]

We can rally for a new-age Farm Bill that is at least as much about eaters as it is about producers. We can require manufacturers to sell us true food and to tell the truth about it. And perhaps we conjoin changes in the food supply to changes in our food demand, and share a taste for salutary change.

We could, in other words, get a bit more obsessed with everything required to improve the health of our relationship with food - instead of just staying obsessed with food in ways that conspire against our health.

In her new book, Mika tells a very personal story of food obsession - while offering an array of insightful tips about overcoming it. In her new book, "Pandora's Lunchbox," Melanie Warner tells of the transformation of lunch into a collection of Frankenfoods. In his new book, "Salt, Sugar, Fat," Michael Moss tells of diligent applications of science to ensure that junk food is made to be as addictive as possible.

Put this all together, and we understand that Mika's struggle to maintain a perfect, camera-ready body is part of a much bigger story, engulfing the body politic. We all share in some degree of obsession with food that is native to us, and primitive, and almost certainly permanent. What comes of it depends on what we do with our modern culture - of which we are, collectively, the masters.

[See How to Take A Stand Against Junk Food.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

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