Crack for Lunch: Tricking Our Brain with the American Diet

We all know Americans have a weight problem. For years we have blamed fat people for their inability to “exercise more and eat less.”  We need to rethink that attitude. Research is now showing that much of the food in the typical American diet does not play fair with our body’s natural mechanisms for signaling satiety. The more we eat, the hungrier we feel.

Scientists are seeing evidence that our processed food, especially the food that is deliciously high in sugar and fat, affects the pleasure centers of our brain in much the same way cocaine does. The food gives us a nice hit of happy endorphins that override our appetite-regulating hormones. Complicating matters is the caloric density of our convenience foods. Normally, as we eat our stomach recognizes both the physical sensation of becoming filled and the more chemical knowledge that calories have refueled us. Our modern, processed food lets us meet and exceed our caloric needs long before our stomachs are physically filled. For example, compare the physical space needed for 500 calories of fresh vegetables vs 500 calories of french fries. Thus craveable processed food pack an obesity encouraging double punch — decreasing our satiety signals while giving our pleasure centers a delightful ping.

Packaged foods, convenience foods, fast food, and school lunches are the top culprits. They leave us paradoxically both hungry and full. They contribute to sluggish afternoons. They decrease productivity at work and learning in our schools.

A quick look at the school lunch menu for my kids’ first week of school shows a highly processed diet of  pizza, popcorn (breaded & deep-fried) chicken, fried french toast sticks with fried tater tots, and pasta. Yes, there are vegetables served as well but they are frequently unappetizing and uneaten. Now I know school lunches are horribly underfunded and they feel they need to fix what kids will eat. However, the inexpensive foods served in school lunches reflect our agricultural policies and the heavy lobbying of the meat and dairy industries, not the nutritional needs of our students. The Department of Agriculture sets our official nutritional policies, not an independent, health and science based entity. Given the emerging science about processed food, this needs to change.

Compelling evidence shows higher levels of meat consumption associated with increased cancer risk and links excess iron to Alzheimer’s disease. According to the documentary Forks over Knives, in the early part of the 20th century, Americans ate 120 pounds of meat (beef, pork and chicken combined), 40 pounds of processed sugar, and 295 pounds of dairy each year. All these numbers have more than doubled and along with them cancers, heart disease, and obesity.

We have known for years that we should eat more vegetable and we as a nation have struggled to do so. Now that we are starting to understand some of the body chemistry involved, perhaps it is no wonder that despite all the obvious health benefits, we can’t eat just one.

Confusing Technically Knowledgeable with Gifted

The fast-moving, mobile, cloud, social, gadget industry is now part of our everyday world, web and app technology is seamlessly integrated into our lives. Most readers of this blog get their daily news electronically, reading it on a desktop screen or tablet instead of from paper. Our gadgets, cars, and houses communicate with each other, outside companies, and us in ways lifted from science fiction. We are experiencing the first true wave of the Internet of things on a consumer level and it is an exciting adventure.

Students and employees who are knowledgeable about the latest apps and social media platforms, who can write code and deploy servers, who have experience on the development side of the digital world, are in high demand. In colleges across the country the numbers of classic liberal arts majors are declining while students flock to acquire the engineering and math degrees that employers value so highly. As the economy continues its long road to recovery, many employers are taking the safer bet and hiring specific skills instead of general abilities.

While technical skills are necessary in many businesses these days, the reality is that the basics of being able to evaluate and analyze data, understand the marketplace, build strong relationships with coworkers and customers, and think, are more important than ever. While it is tempting to hire the person who currently has all the correct boxes checked for skills today, it is more important to make sure they will continually learn and make the connections that will drive your business forward.

Too often we assume that folks with deep technical knowledge are smarter than those with deep knowledge in non-STEM subjects. Perhaps this is a holdover from our reverence for the engineers that sent spaceships to the moon and created the home computer and Internet revolution. Those people were and are, not typical, even within the technology industry. Engineering revolutionaries and pioneers, like most innovators, are gifted. Although anyone with strong technical knowledge is smart, and many jobs require technical knowledge, we need to refrain from assuming that one specific category of skill trumps all others. Technically knowledgeable people may or may not be gifted. Beyond mere technical skills, we need people who can see the big picture, find relationships, discover hidden needs, and anticipate paradigm shifts.