What the NYT and Slate Don't Seem to Understand About Behavior Change

Two articles posted online got under my skin this morning, and I just couldn't resist giving my two cents. First, Tara Parker-Pope, of the New York Times says:

Most obesity researchers now agree that metabolic differences, not willpower, are the driving forces behind weight and appetite control. Studies suggest that an imbalance of brain chemicals and hormones, including cortisol, ghrelin, leptin and serotonin, can increase cravings and make certain foods difficult to resist.

Next, Slate's Engber rants:

It's ironic that so many advocates for healthy eating are also outspoken gourmands. Alice Waters, the proprietor of Chez Panisse, calls for a "delicious revolution" of low-fat, low-sugar lunch programs. It's a central dogma of the organic movement that you can be a foodie and a health nut at the same time—that what's real and natural tastes better, anyway. Never mind how much fat and sugar and salt you'll get from a Wabash Cannonball and a slice of pain au levain. Forget that cuisiniers have for centuries been catering to our hedonic hunger—our pleasure-seeking, caveman selves—with a repertoire of batters and sauces. Junk foods are hyperpalatable. Whole Foods is delicious. Doughnuts are a drug; brioche is a treat.

Tara Parker-Pope misses the fact that personal choices (i.e. what she calls 'willpower') directly affect metabolism.  Numerous studies have shown that exercise and calorie restriction (aka 'diet') alter the metabolism of our muscle and fat cells, as well as improve cells' resistance to insulin.

High-sugar, high-fat foods are hard to resist no matter who you are.  Most of the in-shape people I know have numerous overweight and/or obese relatives.  No, these people weren't simply handed the better genes, rather they are in-shape because they constantly bust their ass.  They exercise like crazy.  At dessert, they pass up the chocolate cake, and take the fruit cup.  When they're hungry during the day, they choose a sensible snack as opposed to raiding the company vending machine.  These people are not super-heroes.  They have spouses and kids.  And at the end of a long day they're tired, just like the rest of us.  So what keeps them going?  Deep down, they know if they stop, they'll just become another statistic.  So they pass up that extra half hour of sleep to hit the road for a run at the crack of dawn.

Willpower leads to behavior changes which lead to metabolic alterations; they're not mutually exclusive.  Sure, most dieters will never see the drastic results accomplished by participants of 'The Biggest Loser', but Parker-Pope just gave them a reason to not even make the attempt.

As for Engber's article on Slate, he completely overlooks one not-so-little issue: serving size.  American fast-food and junk food is packaged in ridiculously-sized (and calorie-laden) servings.  I'll bet the farm that the last time you dined at a gourmet restaurant, the waiter didn't ask if you would like to 'Super-Size' your duck confit entree.

Despite my frustration, I agree with Engber on two points: 1.) a fat-tax on sugary beverages and junk food is not the answer to America's health woes, and 2.) such a tax would end up hurting the poor more than anyone else.  The differences in price between fresh fruits and vegetables and fast-food/junk-food is really a separate, much larger problem that I'm not going to get into right now.

In both articles, what irks me the most is that we are currently faced with an obesity epidemic.  People really don't need to read articles that marginalize the behavior changes that science has shown will make us healthier.