Eat When Hungry; Stop When Full.

There is a new set of food safety instructions to consider, “Eat when hungry; stop when full.” It sounds self-explanatory, but healthy eating habits, nutrition and portion sizes are important aspects of food safety that are uniquely the responsibility of consumers.

Most aspects of food safety are addressed by government regulations, industry regulations, market forces and consumer demands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is revising food safety regulations in response to the rise of food-related injuries, developing technologies and the expansive reach of global food producers into the U.S. food supply. In addition to those regulations, industries sometimes take initiative to recommend food handling tips to ensure a safe product, markets respond to rising costs of safeguarding the food supply and consumers demand foods they find pleasing or essential.

Production-side food safety issues include the steps taken to prevent contamination of food – during harvesting, processing or transporting. Production-side issues also include food preparation, service and storage.  This is especially true when consumers have limited influence on the menu, such as school lunch programs. Commercial food preparation issues merge with consumer demand when consumers do influence the menu, such as in restaurants or “junk food” snack production.  As consumers, we have come to expect food production to safeguard us against acute food-induced injuries.

Yet, the food safety picture is not complete without recognizing the consumer’s role as a stakeholder in food safety. Consumers are responsible for choosing which food to purchase, how to prepare it, how to store it and how much of it to consume. Consumers are in control of choice.

Consumer Choices…and Obesity.

Among the myriad consequences of consumer food choices, chronic health is a troublesome tempest. Chronic health refers to adverse health effects resulting from long-term exposure to a substance, and to persistent adverse health effects resulting from short-term exposure. One example of a chronic health problem stemming from food consumption choices is the person who consistently chooses to eat past the point of satiation, or “over-eating.” Over time, this person will most likely carry some extra weight. If that extra weight reaches the level of overweight or obese, the weight-bearer gains increased risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke and sleep apnea, to name a few.  

Although this connection between extra weight and adverse health effects is well understood, many people keep making choices that lead to obesity. Scientists debate the causes of obesity; they conduct studies designed to gauge how much a person’s environment, genetics, family history, and lifestyle choices factor into becoming obese. Without delving into the complex interrelationship between these factors and resultant obesity, it is easy to recognize the interrelationship between obesity and adverse health effects.

Likewise, regardless of environment and family history, people can control their lifestyle choices, including over-eating. No matter how over-eating habits develop, they constitute a lifestyle choice, an eating choice. Just how much time, effort and thought goes into making eating choices is often a function of personal philosophy.

As a function of personal philosophy, eating choices can be characterized as a personal eating philosophy. The spectrum of eating philosophies is broad and varied. Some people simply buy foods that they were raised on, reflecting regional, ethnic and cultural preferences. Others choose an eating philosophy and follow its tenets; e.g., vegan, macrobiotic, pescetarian.

One tricky part of developing an eating philosophy to maintain non-obesity is that food often plays a dominant role in socialization. Social events often include rich, decadent foods; foods that at one time were reserved for celebratory purposes but are now widely available. These events may have specific food rituals. Food rituals may surround a sports event (chips, dip and beer, anyone?), a special occasion (gobs of articles are devoted to keeping off the holiday pounds and the holidays are followed by gobs of articles devoted to burning off the holiday pounds), or merely a family event (we grilled brats and burgers nearly every summer weekend while I was growing up). Over-eating may arise as part of a social event food ritual.

Yet, food rituals also include your day-to-day eating routine. How many fruits and vegetables you eat each day, whether you commonly have a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in lieu of dinner (or in addition to dinner) and other habitual eating choices constitute your daily food ritual. The USDA offers its recommendations every five years.   Yet, it is difficult to take such academic recommendations and create a food ritual that fulfills a consumer as much as Grandma’s chocolate cake (or milk and cookies after school) can. Such indulgences are not guaranteed to lead to obesity; they are experiences that can be shared by obese and non-obese alike.

Thus, while USDA guidelines offer up 84 pages of guidance, they are guiding utterly human desires and appetites. Should it be any surprise that they are as effective at curbing over-eating as the Bible and the Koran are at curbing prohibited behaviors like infidelity, lying or alcohol consumption?

There is no surefire ritual to avoid becoming overweight or obese. Personal philosophy, eating philosophy, desires, environment, family and genetic history, social demands…the list of variables goes on and on and no one ritual can accommodate those variables. As long as you eat at a slow and relaxed pace, there is one steadfast rule that can guide you through any situation: “Eat when hungry; stop when full.”

Eating Culture.

This article may repeat familiar themes. It may offer little new information to those who seek solutions to over-eating or obesity. Personal eating philosophies are not within the reach of government regulation, industry specifications or market forces. Consumer demand merely reflects these personal eating philosophies. What effect can a simple article have on over-eating and obesity?

The article on its own will have negligible effect on over-eating and obesity, but hopefully it will contribute to a national discussion about the U.S. eating culture. Hopefully, the article will inspire food safety experts to include eating habits, food rituals and consumer choices in food safety conferences. Hopefully, this article will provoke discussions among families, friends and co-workers about food rituals.

By awareness, discussion and reflection, we can revitalize the eating culture that is making America the fattest it has ever been, and it can start as simply as living by the mantra: Eat when hungry; stop when full. It is not a silver bullet, but it is a springboard to revising the U.S. eating culture.