GOOD

The Virgin-Whore Effect: What Healthy Eating Has To Do With Our Puritanical Society

Eating healthy is important, but our guilt-ridden approach to food only hurts us in the long run.



Can we be trained to like healthier foods? A recent study in the Journal of Public Health says maybe. The study asserts that 53 percent of baby food has too much salt and sugar, which may promote a taste for these ingredients in the future. So, they surmise, if we train babies to like things like broccoli and carrots instead, they could develop a taste for vegetables rather than sweets from their first spoonful, therefore putting a dent in the obesity epidemic.

This sounds lovely, but there are some deeply rooted evolutionary reasons for why we love sweets and salt so much. Sugars in fruits are organic sources of energy, and salt is an essential compound that allows our bodies to function properly. It's natural for us to want a small amount of these highly pleasurable tastes. And as Scientific American notes, it may be wishful thinking to hard-wire kids to stay away from these foods; biologically, children have an increased craving for sweets in particular because their growth is in overdrive.


Simply put, weening kids completely off sugar and salt isn't going to work, the same way putting an adult on a diet and telling them to avoid "guilty" foods doesn't work, either. Teaching a kid to eat a balanced diet full of healthy, green foods is important, but if you make legitimate cravings prohibited, the appeal automatically goes up. And if the craving is quelled in secret, there's no way to regulate its consumption.

Consider my own childhood: my parents weren't total health nuts, but they had a thing about not letting me eat sugary foods. The sweetest thing we ever had in the house were those fruit leathers (could they have thought of a less appealing name for a snack?). Then, one day in kindergarten, I was invited to a sleepover at my friend's house and I couldn't believe what I saw: mounds of Twizzlers, Gushers, Lucky Charms, and Snickers bars. I had never seen so much of the forbidden fruit all in one place. I ate the confections until I felt absolutely nauseous, and made a mental note to seek out sweets whenever I was at a friend's house. To this day, I still have a major sweet tooth. I'm convinced those fruit leathers did it.

Granted, that dynamic is hardly the factor fueling obesity in this country; if we really want to encourage healthy eating, we need to take a hard look at food deserts and food prices. But many people have an all-or-nothing, good-or-bad, guilt-ridden approach to food that mirrors the way Americans think about all of our "vices." From failed abstinence-only sex ed policies to the disaster of the drug wars to myriad diets that don't work, depriving people of things they love seems to result in the opposite of the intended effect.

Baby food certainly shouldn't be loaded with extra sugar calories. But we're not going to solve the obesity epidemic by crossing our fingers and hoping we trained our kids not to furtively trade that apple for a Fruit Roll-Up at lunch, either. We need to stop with our proverbial "virgin-whore" attitude toward food and embrace something that continues to elude us: moderation.

Photo via Flickr user Smabs Sputzer, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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