Environment or personal choice: Pick one?

For all the time that humans have been afoot, we have been adjusting to “the environment,” very often on the fly, very often in the face of peril. So it’s risible that a study just released by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery asked respondents to opine on the cause of obesity: personal choice or environment and genetics.

It’s especially laughable when the environment in question — where processed foods are ubiquitous, artificially cheap, and served in bloated portions — is completely human-made! (That’s actually good news: We have much more agency against the food environment than we do when, say, the volcano erupts.)

In all cases of peril, our first responsibility is to protect ourselves and our families, by whatever means necessary. Unlike when lava is flowing toward the lanai, however, the biggest challenge in a hostile food environment has been identifying that it’s dangerous. Food is love and culture bearer, it both salves and celebrates — how can it be bad?

But in many of its forms, it is — or can be, if we won’t take simple steps like reading labels and setting a limit for how extensively processed our food choices are going to be. An example would be not to buy products with added sugar in the first 5 ingredients. Shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Except: Two of three consumer food products sold in America have added sugar, according to Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina, including many that wouldn’t have had added sugar 100 years ago: Bread, crackers, salad dressing, catsup, mustard, meat, yogurt, nuts, soups, cereals, and more.

Note that most people wouldn’t characterize many of those as sweet. There’s a reason for that: The average American consumes about 19 teaspoons of added sugar every day — they’d have to, if they’re eating the typical American diet, no? If you walk around shin-deep in sugar syrup, you’re going to need supershots of sweetness to notice it.

In nature, sweetness is the signal that a substance is safe to ingest, but food manufacturers have turned that on its head. They are required to list ingredients in order of proportion, so they’ve come up with, at last count, 61 names for added sugar, from agave nectar to turbinado. When they use several kinds in a formulation, each one appears lower on the ingredient list than if they were listed collectively as “added sugar.”

There is no doubt that our food environment is influential, pernicious, and pervasive, and some parts do defy individual redress. Healthier food often costs more money, in part because of government policies, in part because consumer demand (but don't overlook that consumer demand is defined partly by what you, personally, buy). And in some locales, both rural and urban, healthier food is hard to come by at any price.

But even people facing those barriers, and especially everyone else, can choose healthier, which is … personal choice, supposedly on the opposite side of environmental.

One of the gifts of human reasoning is that we can see what we can change, and what we cannot, and food almost always is in the former category. Nobody is holding us down and forcing into our mouths what we are going to eat.

Even people who are allergic to peanuts, or shellfish, have the option of what to eat. They can ignore the peril, or they can insist on avoiding those substances they have reason to believe may harm them. If they’ve experienced a dramatic illustration of that danger, all the better — further debate is pointless.

For everyone else, the peril can be more subtle, masked by yummy flavors and ceaseless come-ons that you deserve a break today.

If you’re happy not only with your choices but with their inevitable outcomes, great. But for most people, it’s just not salable to declare doom at the hands of one’s environment.

If survival, or thriving, requires making unpalatable choices, they remain choices even if they are unpalatable. The alternative is to stay home while the lava laps at your backyard, setting fire to all you hold dear.


Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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