Many of my clients enjoy having a conversation during their sports massage treatments, and often we talk about a variety of health influences. Diet and nutrition is an area that commonly comes up. This post aims to discuss an interesting perspective on human nutrition and the obesity crisis. I learned about this through debating with my brother (Pete), who has a PhD in “ingestive behaviour” (essentially the psychology of appetite).
What is obesity?
The NHS diagnoses obesity based on waist circumference. For women a circumference of >80cm is generally classed as obese, and in men >94cm. In 2016 the government estimated that 26% of UK adults were overweight. This has risen from 15% in the early 90s, but the rise has plateaued since 2010. Obesity has been linked to a number of diseases and symptoms including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, sleep apnea, gout, and osteoarthritis.
The Driving Force of Hunger
The ancestors we are directly evolved from lived in times of food scarcity. They most likely had to walk or run long distances in order to find their dinner. If they were lucky enough to catch a tasty meal, it would be helpful for them to be able to eat a lot of it incase they weren’t so lucky over the next few days.
The body evolved mechanisms that promote survival in these times. For example, scientists estimate that the brain recognises the feeling of fullness up to 20 minutes after the stomach is actually full. Also, one food scientist in the 70s found that particular combinations of sugar, salt, and fat triggered the brain’s pleasure experience. He called the combination “the bliss point”. Similarly, you may have seen sensationalist headlines claiming that sugar lights up the same parts of the brain as cocaine. Our clever brain literally rewards us for eating high calorie foods that help us survive!
The Mismatch Hypothesis
However, we no longer live in a food scarce environment. In fact, the opposite! With drive through take aways and food by delivery we don’t even have to get out of our seats to get our next meal. My friend Hanne used to work in a kitchen shop in the centre of Glasgow and could walk to 3 different Greggs within 2 minutes. The problem is, our bodies haven’t quite caught up with our culture. We still have trouble recognising fullness and many food manufacturers exploit things like the bliss point. The discrepancy between human and cultural evolution is called the mismatch hypothesis. (You can read about the mismatch hypothesis and stress here.)
According to this perspective, the mechanisms that drive us to eat for survival are strong and can’t be overcome through will power. We can only solve the obesity crisis by restricting food availability, which seems very unrealistic. Becoming more mindful of our eating can surely help, but may not be enough. Some people may not have the understanding around food to make this possible. Technology such as tracking apps can increase awareness around food, but have their own pitfalls. They still rely on human decision making and have the potential to cause disordered eating or food obsession.
Benefits and disadvantages to this model
Thinking about obesity in this way could be positive as it changes from a personal trouble (the individual’s fault) to a public issue with societal and environmental factors. This could reduce stigma and fat shaming. Our society often labels overweight people as “lazy”, “lacking will power”, or “irresponsible”. It’s my opinion that most overweight people don’t WANT to be overweight and are aware of the possible consequences. This model of obesity can promote empathy and compassion for others.
However, completely removing responsibility from the individual could reduce their motivation and inspire apathy. I feel that this perspective is useful for challenging societal stereotypes of overweight people. But, the model is a little reductionist and does not give much weight to other factors that influence food choice (such as social norms, education, wealth/poverty, culture, food marketing, and human free will).
We are able to learn more about the foods we eat and the effects they have on our minds and bodies. We can all become more mindful of what we eat and how it makes us feel. We can practice noticing the feelings of hunger and satiety. We can practice balance in our diets. We can have treats in moderation.
Obesity has been a prominent topic in the news and politics across the past decade or two. The rise in obesity has plateaued but our society is still experiencing the effects. The mismatch hypothesis suggests that we have an innate drive to find and consume the foods higher in energy, typically sugary and fatty foods, to help us survive. Food marketers exploit this fact. Our bodies have not evolved as quickly as our culture and as a consequence we are consuming more than we need. Understanding this perspective can give us more compassion and empathy for others, however we can all still strive to be more self aware with our food choices.
Whilst this post does not directly relate to sports massage, I feel that I have a privileged position in being able to discuss a variety of health topics with my clients and encourage health promoting behaviours and health education. I have studied the basics of nutrition and digestion through my A-Level in human biology. However it is outside my scope of practice to give individual advice or to recommend particular diets. For this service you can self refer to a dietician or nutritionist, or ask your GP.
This article aims to discuss an interesting perspective on a widespread social issue that affects health and wellbeing, NOT to advise on diet/nutrition!