The term “toxic environment” was popularized years ago to refer to conditions that promote the consumption of high-calorie, unhealthy food and encourage being physically inactive. This combination is thought to be a major factor that contributes to obesity and other chronic diseases, so understanding both aspects is important. For now, let’s focus on our toxic food environment, which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
One characteristic of the toxic environment is that food is available almost everywhere. Gas stations have evolved into convenience stores that happen to sell gas. Displays of candy, soda, and other snacks are present at nearly every checkout line in nearly every store, even stores that have nothing to do with food. You can find vending machines that sell candy and soda most places you go, even hospitals and schools. Many workplaces have a common area where you can typically find a snacks or a break room with vending machines. Even going to a meeting at work may mean sitting around a table with a plate of donuts or cookies in the center.
Sure, you don’t have to buy a soda when you pay for gas or take a donut from the plate, but resisting can be difficult. The more you are around food, the more likely you are to eat it, even if you aren’t hungry. Whether your goal is to eat less food or to eat healthier food, the world we live in makes it difficult.
It’s not just willpower, either. We are all susceptible to marketing, whether done by a store, restaurant, or a friend with a plate of freshly baked brownies. The power of marketing, combined with the fact that most of us don’t really understand food or nutrition, is difficult to overcome. Price is a factor, too. Sometimes soda is less expensive than a bottle of water and candy or chips are almost always cheaper than a healthier snack like fruit or nuts.
It gets worse. It turns out that much of the food we are continually exposed to is of poor nutritional quality. Convenience foods such as candy, snacks, and drinks tend to be high in calories, mostly from added sugar and/or fat, and low in nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many restaurant meals, both fast food and casual dining, are similar in this way. Even prepackaged meals that you eat at home tend to be high in calories and low in healthy nutrients. So, not only are we almost always around food, much of that food is unhealthy.
It also turns out that these unhealthy, calorie-dense foods come in portions that contain a shocking number of calories. It used to be that you could buy a soda in a 12 oz. can or a 16 oz. bottle. Now, 20 oz. bottles are common and even larger sizes are almost always an option. The same is true for candy and snacks. As portions increase, so do the calories we consume.
To be fair, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having so many foods and drinks available to us. We don’t need to eat these foods, right? But, all too often, we do. And when the excess calories from all of this food are combined with a low level of physical activity, a “perfect storm” is created that almost always leads to weight gain.
Changing our food environment is difficult, maybe even impossible. But we can change the way we interact with it. This includes being more mindful of what, when, and why we are eating. Being aware of internal signals like hunger and external forces like advertising and peer pressure can help us make smarter decisions within our toxic food environment.