It's the New Year! New brooms are sweeping clean and new resolutions are springing up in hopes of fresh starts. These usually come in two categories, those aimed at burgeoning waistlines and those aimed at already bulging ones.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, failed New Year's resolutions are running the heavy equipment. And if all your good intentions go sideways in a few weeks, don't feel alone. All of us have shares in the paving company, in ways you may not realize.
So what do we do with the lag between our ideals — in this case, self-control — and how we actually behave? I'm no expert, so pour me a glass of bubbly while I think about that. But researchers who are have a whole new take on things.
First, we've been told for years that our ever-widening girths are due to a combo of too little exercise and too much food. To tackle both, we've been advised, the best approach is one of small, doable increments rather than big, unrealistic goals.
In the "small is doable" exercise department that means, say, adding a 10-minute walk each day. But the latest thinking is that exercise is only a fraction — maybe a quarter to one-fifth — of the culprit in our growing weight problem.
On the food side, amongst the best "small" thinking is to eat some incremental amount less, such servings that are 10 per cent smaller. This isn't a bad idea, but it isn't the whole picture, either.
Still, if you're going for the "10 per cent less" rule keep in mind that you're only about halfway to serving sizes at the turn of the last century, when dinner plates were about 20 per cent smaller. In fact, the Small Plate Movement in America has calculated that reducing dinner plate sizes from 12 to 10 inches in diameter would reduce servings by about 22 per cent in terms of calories, and result in an average weight loss in the neighbourhood of 18 pounds (eight kg) for the average adult.
In the food culture and attitude department, my dad likes to tell a story from his navy days. His petty officer used to tell them to push away from the table before they felt full. It could literally save their lives, he warned, to be lean and mean rather than stuffed and sluggish. Ironically, those words ring true today in an unintended way.
Not that those seamen left meals hungry, but nor were they feeling roly-poly. Sure, they might later go to the mess for something to eat, but my dad followed that advice — and kept his navy weight — all his adult life.
Those wise words echo something intrinsic to France we could also learn from.
It's almost a miracle to we Canadians, whose obesity rate is over 25 per cent, that the French, even with their love of good, rich food, are among the slimmest people in Europe along with Italians and the Swiss.
The difference, says new research, can be as simple as what is socially and culturally embedded. Take, for instance, what's said at the end of a meal. When someone French is offered more food, they may well refuse, saying je n'ai pas faim, (I don't have hunger). Saying you're not feeling hungry is much different than our Canadian standard, I'm full, and our expectation of same.
The bottom line is New Year's resolutions or no, don't think you're alone in battling that ever expanding waistline, or that you're weak and lacking self-control if success eludes you. You are totally backed by some of the latest thinking in the food world.
Deborah Cohen's new book, A Big Fat Crisis, is changing the way people are thinking about over-eating. Yes, self-control is part of the mix, but Cohen has a better take. A senior natural scientist at the not-for-profit RAND Corporation who specializes in studying how structural environmental factors — both social and physical ones — influence health, Cohen has concluded that our massive collective weight gain is about "hidden forces" far beyond self-control.
She argues that the increase in obesity is the product of two things. One is the fundamental limit of self-control along with the ways we are hard-wired to eat. The second factor — and this is the real eye-opener — is the modern food environment, which includes lower prices for food, ever larger portion sizes, and the huge influence of food advertising.
If, as we traditionally thought, our burgeoning waistlines were simply a product of lousy self-discipline and stuffing ourselves then lounging around like soggy couch potatoes, you cannot scientifically and logically account for the fat trend that's plagued North America the last 30 years.
Up until about 1980, the weight of adult Canadians was pretty stable. Then suddenly, between 1980 and 2010, the average adult Canadian, other than my dad and a few others, packed on 20 extra pounds.
There's simply no way we all suddenly fell off the turnip truck, abandoning self-control and suddenly stopping all exercise. In fact, most of us are exercising more than ever and we probably have the same amount of self-discipline, if not more, than we did 30 years ago.
Instead, says Cohen, the changing conditions of our modern world have pushed our limits to such an extent that more and more of us are simply no longer up to the challenge of resisting over-eating.
The bottom line is it's going to take huge policy changes, effective regulations, and making a more balanced food environment for ourselves — like regulating trans fats; demanding better and more honest food labelling; resisting manufacturers push of salty, fatty and sugary processed (read: profitable) foods; as well as reconfiguring our food culture, à la examples like France and my dad's navy days.
In other words, go ahead with those self-promises. But what we also need are "big picture" New Year's resolutions for the benefit of the common good from leaders and policy makers willing to step up to the plate. And I don't mean a dinner plate.
That combo would make for one heck of a happy, healthy New Year.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist whose best food ideas draw from past and future thinking.