For parents concerned about their children's weight—both now and as they grow into adults—a new piece on obesity in America by Frank Bruni of The New York Times—"...And Love Handles for All" —is an excellent, though discouraging, read.

Bruni's thesis is that our growing national girth is a perfect match between our biological disposition to take in and retain calories, and a food environment filled with an abundance of cheap calories. He writes:

Densely caloric and all too convenient food now envelops us, and many of us do what we’re chromosomally hard-wired to, thanks to millenniums of feast-and-famine cycles. We devour it, creating plump savings accounts of excess energy, sometimes known as love handles, for an imagined future shortage that, in America today, doesn’t come.

Of course, Bruni isn't the first one to make this point. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler's critique goes even further.  In The End of Overeating Kessler shows how people end up overeating, even when they are motivated not to: Hyperpalatable foods—those with just the right amount of sugar, fat and/or salt—produce changes in our brain chemistry that mimic addiction.1

I wrote about the problem of addictive foods, especially those targeted to kids, in my last post The Truth About "Child-Friendly" Foods. It's a huge problem.

But I think there's an additional environmental factor that has contributed to obesity in America that nobody wants to talk about: Our cultural obsession with nutrition.  

The dialogue about nutrition in America is predicated on the assumption that we need to know more in order to eat better. It's not so.

Recently, a collaborative team of French, Canadian and American researchers surveyed people in each of their respective countries to find out how much they knew about dietary fats.2

  • Americans know the most.
  • The French know the least.
  • The Canadians are more like the Americans than the French. 

You can guess the rest: The obesity rate in the United States is 3 times higher than it is in France.

In this survey, people were instructed to answer, "I don't know," rather than hazard a guess. Overall:

  • French respondents didn't know the answer to 43% of the questions.
  • Canadian respondents didn't know the answer to 13% of the questions.
  • American respondents didn't know the answer to 4% of the questions.

Among the people who thought they could estimate the percentage of fat in different foods, the American respondents were most likely to be correct.

In other words, we don't just think we know...we really do know.  Hurray for us.  (Am I the only one who thinks it's kind of ironic that we are a fat nation that knows a lot about fat?)

So here's a recap: The French provided the fewest answers and, among the particpants who provided an answer, the French received the worst scores.  The Americans provided the most answers, and received the best scores. The French are slim and trim, and we're...not.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the most knowledgeable people are also the worst eaters. An environment that stresses the nuances of nutrition—or, as I like to call it, Nutritional Noise—distracts people from seeing the BIG picture. 

Indeed, that's what the researchers speculate: 

“[I]n an environment of great technicality of nutritional information, consumers might lose sight of the “big picture” when it comes to nutritional information and become consumers of nutrients instead of food.  Because it places the focus on nutrients and individual products rather than on the global diet, the “nutrient approach” might further confuse consumers and result in questionable food choices.”

In my experience, it's especially easy for parents to lose sight of the big picture because it's so important, and sometimes so hard, to feed kids well.  Ironically, the nutrition mindset makes feeding kids ever harder.

The parents I know are never satisfied that their toddlers have consumed enough calcium, enough protein or even enough calories. In order to get these nutrients into their kids, parents often feed their children marginal foods and use questionable tactics, all of which inadvertently promote bad long term eating habits.

As far as I can tell, the French foster good habits instead of nutritional knowledge. And that's what it takes to eat right. 

In the end, nutrition isn't the answer because eating right isn’t really about food, it’s about behavior — what, when, why and how much someone chooses to eat.  

Since nutrition only partially shapes those choices, especially for children, the key to success can never be found by focusing only on food. Parents, you don't need to learn more about nutrition. Rather, you must shape how your children behave in relation to food.  This you accomplish by deliberately and consciously fostering their habits.

1Kessler, D. A., MD, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American AppetiteNew York, NY: Rodale

2 Saulais, L., M. Doyon, B. Ruffieux, and H. Kaiser. 2012. “Consumer Knowledge About Dietary Fats: Another French Paradox?” British Food Journal 114 (1): 108-20.

Parts of this post originally appeared on ItsNotAboutNutrition.com.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

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