05/31/2012 09:15 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 05:12 EDT

The Problem With "Cleansing" in North America


This month, everyone scrambled over new data indicating that -- shocker! -- Americans are fat and getting fatter. The findings, published in theAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine, predicted that 42 per cent of Americans will be obese by 2030, with rates of severe obesity doubling to an estimated 11 per cent.

There is no argument that increasing obesity rates pose serious health complications, burdening individual patients, taxpayers and the healthcare system with arguably avoidable costs in the process. After all, it's easy to avoid obesity, just eat less...right? Eh, not necessarily.

A few weeks ago, motivated by the impending summer weather and wardrobe, I decided to do a "cleanse." The cleanse restricted my diet purely to consumption of vegetables, fruit and meat. No soda, no alcohol, no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no salt.

Day One: I was gung-ho. Only two weeks. No starvation necessary. All my essential nutrients accounted for. This wouldn't be so hard. That breakfast fruit smoothie was perfectly satisfying. No hunger.

Then I went outside. Cue: hunger.

Walking down the street was a challenge alone. That guy's bagel looks so good. I have just enough cents for those vending machine chips. Did you know that the corner frozen yogurt bar hands out free samples at lunch!? Oh, great. It's my colleague's birthday. There's cake.

By day two, the cardboard on which the five dollar footlong was advertised started to look appetizing.

In a society where food options are plentiful, willpower simply doesn't do the trick. It is human nature to maximize calorie intake to prepare for -- what used to be certain -- periods of starvation. Our senses are incessantly inundated with food that is inexpensive, tasty and easily consumed. According to a New England Journal of Medicinestudy by Martijn Katan, of the Institute of Health Sciences at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, "obesity may be a problem that cannot be solved by individual persons but that requires community action."

Increasing global food prices are oft pinpointed as the culprit for increasing obesity rates. Healthier food is more expensive, right? Again, not necessarily.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, I managed to adhere to the diet restrictions for the prescribed timeframe. After a few days and a bona fide behavioral readjustment, my sense of control and satisfaction surged as both my cravings and grocery bill substantially decreased.

The relatively restrictive diet of fruits, veggies and meat necessitated creativity. Baked peppers stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and onions ($4.50). Pureed cauliflower ($2.75). Spaghetti squash with hot sauce and beef ($7). Fruit smoothie ($4).

In fact, once my palate adjusted, eating healthy turned out not to be so hard... at least with respect to cravings. The hardest part then became normalization of the diet.

Imagine this: It's 3pm; snack time. Your colleague gets up to grab a bag of chips from the vending machine. Normal. Five minutes later, you get up to grab a snack as well, returning with half a head of cooked cauliflower. Not normal.

Casual snacking has been so instituted into our normal daily routine that an eyebrow is seldom raised when we reach for that second helping of afternoon chips, M&Ms, gummies, what have you. But there is nothing casual about a pre-prepared head of cauliflower, despite its having exponentially fewer calories and better nutritional value.

Though personal nutrition is, at its core, a purely individual act, eating is an exceedingly public phenomenon. Our appetites are increasingly determined less by pure nutritional needs and more by external stimuli, like that yummy looking sandwich on the billboard. Combatting obesity, promoting public health and reducing healthcare costs necessitates a similarly public process.