A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the US has the highest percentage of obese children and young adults in the world. Researchers found that a deadly combination of urbanization, poor diets, and reduced physical activity fuels excess weight. Both structural features and individual choices have contributed to the American obesity crisis.
But there is a third component that is contributing to this epidemic — culture.
According to most sociologists, culture consists of the norms, behaviors, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group. Once the elements of a culture have been internalized, things that are, in fact, only socially agreed upon come to be seen as normal. For instance, in our not so recent history, it was the norm to have three meals a day. Today people routinely eat five or six meals a day — which means that they are eating almost continually.
People also used to sit around a table and eat dinner as a means to connect with family.
Now, according to Michael Pollan, award-winning author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, more than 20 percent of all meals consumed by Americans take place in a car.
It’s not just people. Organizations have also changed their food cultures. Business retreats and conferences often offer four or five meals in an eight-hour period. Despite the fact that most events require long periods of being seated.
And even those workers who stay at the office find themselves facing candy bowls, danishes, cookies, and other sugary confections that have been strategically provided to build community, connection, and, rather misguidedly — as anyone who has ever attended a three-year-old’s birthday party knows — focus and productivity.
But even if you’re able to escape the norms that govern one’s workplace, it’s often even more difficult to bow out of those at home. According to sociologist Marjorie DeVault, family members — especially mothers — use food as a way to express love.
In our current food culture, most of our beliefs and practices have very little to do with nourishing our bodies for long term health, let alone maintaining a healthy weight. Instead, we use food to motivate, to connect, to express love, and to mark our important rites of passage.
And, as it turns out, we also use it to carry one another to an early grave.
The good news, however, is that norms are not static. They can be changed through concerted day-to-day practice. We can begin by feeding our bodies instead of our emotions, by connecting instead of cooking, by saying “I love you” instead of “Can I get you another?”
And, most importantly for parents, teachers, and others guiding our precious children and young adults, we can create rewards and incentives that have more to do with accomplishment than with calories.
There is a well-known story that surfaces from time to time in weight loss communities, such as Weight Watchers or Bright Line Eating, where a child falls off his bike at a neighbor’s house, and when he goes to his friend’s mom crying, she hands him a cookie. He places it on his knee and says with complete sincerity, “but it still hurts.”
As parents, teachers, and others guiding our children and young adults, it is our responsibility — not theirs — to recognize when a bandage is a better option than a cookie, when a gold star is better than a Goldfish, and a real hug and kiss more satisfying than their chocolate foil-wrapped counterparts. And just think of the valuable life lessons they’ll be able to learn in those all-to-fleeting moments of true emotional connection.
-Kathryn J. Lively
Kathryn J. Lively is a Professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) and 2016-2017 Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.