I’m super-sad to see the end of the amazing BBC2 series The Men Who Made Us Thin, in short because it’s been a programme basically aimed squarely at people like yours truly. The first episode was about why the diet industry is selling you lies (which inspired an entire post here), and it’s covered some utterly horrific quick fixes and food industry marketing along the way.
Seriously: if you have access to iPlayer, I strongly recommend you give it a watch.
But in the last episode, the focus was on how our food environment affects the way that we eat. Kind of a no brainer, when you think about it – but it’s something I hadn’t really considered all that much before.
I mean, the amount of advertising we’re exposed to on a daily basis is tricky to pin down – but estimates have ranged from 250, to over 3000, every single day. And personally, I can’t remember the last time I went for a walk somewhere and didn’t encounter at least two or three places I could buy junk food – not helped by the fact that I live in the middle of London, obviously, but I’m pretty sure this rings true back home, too. Our whole environment is geared towards heavily marketed, unhealthy, junk food.
And when you go to the supermarket, it’s incredibly easy to get drawn in to the pretty colours and massive ‘you want this yes you do no seriously you really bloody want this‘ signs hovering over a multipack of coke and a family-size bag of Doritos. It’s designed that way.
And in the name of a balanced argument, it does work the other way, too: I went to Borough Market yesterday, and only bought healthy things – because there, the healthy things were arranged so beautifully that it was impossible not to. You don’t even want a bar of chocolate when the fruit looks this great:
Unfortunately, that’s kinda the exception to the rule. In the real world, it’s generally not possible to do all your shopping in a posh organic rah-rah market, as much as that’d be nice. Day-to-day, it’s just easier – and more practical – to get your food wherever’s closest to home, and offers the best bang for your buck. Which tends to mean the supermarket.
There’s a TED talk by Dan Ariely about decision-making that explains it a lot better than I can, but in short, deep down, the brain doesn’t like thinking too hard about decisions. We like to opt for the default, especially when we’re faced with an overload of choices – a situation that tends to make us freak out and just pick something to get the trauma of deciding over and done with.
I’m hella familiar with that trauma. It’s called lunch. But when our food environment is geared towards unhealthy, high calorie, low nutrient, quick-and-dirty meals, we’re more inclined to opt for that – even if we know it’s wrong. And that means that when you’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage – because you’re doing so in an environment that’s kinda pushing the opposite.
However: I don’t like the whole food-marketing-conspiracy idea that people are too weak or dumb to outthink clever marketing. I think it’s patronising, and it plays into the idea that ‘fat’ is the same as ‘lazy,’ ‘stupid,’ or any of the other subtle negatives we talk about when we’re using the f-word.
In reality, I think it’s a matter of self-esteem, self-confidence and empowerment. If you’ve got enough faith in yourself to know that you can make the right choices, and that you’re informed enough to do so with purpose, that’s more powerful than any marketing trick out there. But that confidence is something that comes through habit, and positive reinforcement.
It’s a matter of repeating a message that you can make the right choices, again and again. This study shows why advertising slogans work by repeating their messages in exactly the same way – but I’d wager it’s even more powerful when these messages come from inside.
For instance: whilst working with the wonderful Steve Grant to figure out what’s been making me ill, I’m not eating wheat or gluten, dairy, sugar, or basically anything that’s processed in any way. I could look at that in an ‘oh my God, I’m not allowed to eat ANYTHING FUN’ kinda way; or, I could look at it as an opportunity to create some really delicious things.
Case in point:
Coke and their multi-million dollar advertising campaigns got nothin’ on my Instagram feed.
But when I make one great meal – especially once I’ve put it through a snazzy filter and posted it on the internet – I’m inspired to make another. And if I’m spending all that time in the kitchen making said snazzy meals, you can guarantee I ain’t going anywhere near the bakery aisle at the shop and ruining all that effort.
And then, because I’ve been eating well, my skin is clearer than it was three weeks ago. My hair looks better. I’ve got more energy, so I go to the gym, which means I feel even better about myself… Which means I’m inspired to make more positive choices, like drinking green tea and getting to bed at a reasonable hour.
You can see what I’m getting at. One good choice inspires another. And after a little while, habit sets in. I’m not tempted to hit up a bag of cookies when I know I’ve got that delicious lookin’ (and smellin’) watermelon waiting for me in the fridge. I’m almost oblivious to the McFlurry flashing at me from the billboard on the bus stop, because I know I’ve got one hell of a dinner to go home to. And because I’ve experienced for myself how much better I feel for making these choices, I’m confident that they’re worth making, and I’m sure that they’re right.
None of this stuff needs a crazy diet plan or a snazzy marketing strategy, though. It’s just good stuff that’s available to pretty much anyone. It’s real food, reasonable exercise, and positive thinking – things that Pepsico, Nestle and Coca-Cola aren’t going to make any money selling.
So: trust yourself. Create a positive environment, both in terms of food, and other good stuff – and pay attention to your choices. It’s mindfulness on an everyday level, but it’ll get you a lot further than any diet plan out there, and it’ll make you feel pretty damn good while you do it.
And now – I’m off to go Instagram my lunch.