I Eat Junk Food: Does That Make Me a Hypocrite?

cupcake

Under that frosting is a delicious cupcake.

Being an obesity researcher, people who don’t know me often assume that I must have an extremely healthy diet. These people are somewhat mistaken.

Let me be clear: I think my diet is pretty healthy. My breakfast and suppers are usually vegetarian. Almost all of the meals I eat at home are home-made from scratch. Although I am involved in the food preparation, I can’t take credit for the healthiness of our meals – my wife has been vegetarian for many years, and since I will eat anything, we tend to eat vegetarian at home (my pre-wife diet involved a lot more Kraft Dinner). I eat lots of fruits and veggies, legumes, etc, and rarely drink my calories.

In contrast, when I eat out, I tend to eat much less healthy food. I enjoy pizza for lunch at least once a week (some weeks it is much, much more than once), and at conferences I often eat all manner of deep fried specimens. I also enjoy the odd KFC. And so when people see me eating out for the first time (or see me eating pizza at work week after week… after week), they are often taken aback.

To complicate matters, I have also come out against food-industry sponsorships of obesity research. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it’s good for health researchers to profit from the sale of demonstrably unhealthy products (even indirectly). I’m leery of bake sales and video game marathons for the same reason.

My question is – does this make me a hypocrite?  Is it ok for me to advocate that people limit their sugar sweetened beverage intake, argue that researchers should avoid taking money from soda companies, but still consume the odd can of pop ourselves?  Can I actively discourage people from playing video games, or fundraising via video game marathons, while still playing Angry Birds from time to time? If I don’t want to take money from these companies, why am I happy to give them my own?

The way that I view it (or rationalize it), is that it seems unreasonable to avoid all unhealthy behaviours. It might be possible, but it seems to make for a rather dull existence. And since I really enjoy the odd bit of deep-fried meat or TV viewing, I choose to include those activities in my life. And (borrowing a page from Yoni Freedhoff), I try to make a conscious decision to only engage in as much of these behaviours as I need to be happy. That is what I would advocate that others do as well, as it seems like the most realistic method of living a (generally) healthy lifestyle for the long term.

I know that many colleagues view things differently – that bake sales aren’t so bad, but that health researchers should set a good example by engaging in healthy behaviours. I can’t say that I find any errors in that logic, although I don’t think I have the self-control (or the desire) to abstain from unhealthy foods/behaviours altogether.  And I don’t think that total abstinence from unhealthy behaviours is something we should be promoting either.

I know that the folks who read this blog are generally a health-conscious bunch. So I am curious – how do you walk the balance between promoting a healthy lifestyle, while also enjoying the odd bit of unhealthy fun? And is it possible to do so without being a hypocrite?

Travis

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16 Responses to I Eat Junk Food: Does That Make Me a Hypocrite?

  1. Hey Travis,

    Great post – since you asked, I’ll reply :)

    Your question: how do you walk the balance between promoting a healthy lifestyle, while also enjoying the odd bit of unhealthy fun? And is it possible to do so without being a hypocrite?

    As health promoters (be it clinicians, researchers, etc) one of the major tenets of promoting a healthy lifestyle is balance. We often use this concept to describe single behaviors, such as diet – “eat a balanced diet”. I believe this idea of balance operates at multiple levels- including single behaviors, such as diet or exercise, but also encompassing many behaviors. I think we should view balance as something of a theme that permeates every aspect of our health behaviors.

    For example, as a young researcher I probably sit too much – at my desk at work and at home, and of course occasionally in front of the TV. I also exceed the physical activity guidelines for adults, usually every week (lunch-time hockey, running after work, weekend-warrior outings). My sleep health is good, but I do enjoy a cigar from time to time. I think you see where I’m going with this…

    If we as health promoters expect our clients, patients, and the public to jump on board the balance bandwagon, then we should lead by example in balancing each individual health behavior, as well as the sum of our health behaviors. In living uber-healthy lifestyles, avoiding all things unhealthy, we are creating an image of an unattainable or unsustainable lifestyle for most people, and in fact this is where the beast of hypocrisy lives. Balance is key, at both micro- and macro- levels; hypocrisy is anything but.

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  2. I think that health care professionals should be as healthy as possible without it verging on making healthy into a compuslive unhealthy disorder. By consiously thinking that eating unhealthy is appropriate, how are we as health professionals going to ever make our clients believe that it is imperative to eat healthy? If we as health professionals and resersearchers are saying “oh well I eat this and I eat that because genetically I have a higher metabolism and a low chance of disease, and it makes me happy so I make a concious decision to have deep fried battered fast food”, then our clients will and can use the same arguement. They will use the same arguemnt even if they are obese, have a high BMI or are highly predisposed to diseases. The answer is we can’t! We need to make healthy choices and try to eat as healthy as possible. We need to lead by example or we are going to have NO movement in preventative health styles and healthy living.

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    • Travis says:

      Thanks for all the comments!

      David – Don’t you find that sort of lifestyle exhausting though? I just don’t see that as being sustainable, or even healthy for me personally… I guess I could have a lifestyle that is literally as healthy as possible (which seems quite stressful), or I could have a lifestyle which is 80% healthy, and far more enjoyable. The survival curves between those two lifestyles is going to be almost indistinguishable, so I just don’t see the point of the stress.

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    • Dr. V says:

      I think that is bigotry, pure and simple. We expect perfection of people with weight issues or health issues where we don’t expect it of people who don’t have those issues. What is that, punishment? Travis is right, the difference between an 80% disciplined approach and a full-on perfectionist one is likely to be minimal…except that the full-on approach is likely to be abandoned, even with some rebound effect leaving the patient worse off than they were before.

      Far better we should model a realistic “treats are treats” approach, and give our patients the respect of assuming that because they occasionally eat a bag of Doritos they are capable of learning when to decide it’s enough. To do otherwise is to send yet another smug message: look at you, you failure, you’ll never measure up. Winning friends and influencing people…

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  3. niraj says:

    I don’t think it is necessary for health care researchers to set examples via their own lives. Else it would be incumbent upon cigarette company employees (or their advertisers) to live on nothing less than tobacco and set a sterling example by compulsorily dying of lung cancer.

    Or the weapon makers to set an example by murdering all and sundry …

    ok I got too far :(

    your job is to just report your findings … whoever picks it up is responsible for the consequences or benefits. that whoever could be you.

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  4. Orchid64 says:

    Perfectionism in anything, including diet, is at the root of disordered behavior. Encouraging people to live healthily is one thing. Pushing them to be “perfect” is quite another. There is room in life for indulgence and if health care professionals tell people otherwise, they set up the perfect psychological environment for eating disorders.

    I think more people are inspired by the fact that healthy people with a professional interest in diet and weight are not perfect in their lifestyle habits. If you are a paragon and they believe they cannot also achieve that level of perfection, they will simply give up. If “all or nothing” thinking on this issue is promoted, then those who are certain they can’t do it all will choose to do nothing.

    You inspire and lead better by example if you aren’t eating perfectly at all times. Shrill perfectionists do much more harm than good by setting standards few can live with. I believe that that is one of the many factors that lead to obesity in America.

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  5. Kyle Rich says:

    Hey Travis,

    I really enjoyed this post. Something that I think should also be mentioned are some of the social factors around the idea of healthy lifestyles. Specifically, what I think justifies health researchers/professionals, etc. engaging in the odd unhealthy behaviour is the fact that they are aware of what they are doing and what they may need to do in order to compensate. So while we sit at our desks, eat pizza for lunch, and indulge a bit on weekends, we are also likely getting our 30 minutes of activity everyday and taking a few extra veggies for dinner.

    Personally, I think this awareness is what we should be striving to promote. Rather than a pristine lifestyle, we should be trying to raise awareness of strategies and options for people to engage in, in order to be more healthy on their own terms. In this respect, I think that indulging (a little bit) ourselves is actually a great way to model a healthy lifestyle that is accessible to everyone.

    Thanks again for the post, this is always an interesting discussion

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  6. Louise says:

    Good article, thanks for posting. It seems to me that the big picture is what’s important here – are you generally a person who follows a healthy lifestyle? Yes. A few indulgences do not make an unhealthy person. Bad health choices, every day, long-term, is something altogether different.

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  7. Norah says:

    It is a huge misconception of the general public and even amongst educated university students that an ideal healthy lifestyle entirely excludes all sweets and fast foods. Last spring, we ran a healthy bake sale to raise funds for CON-SNP at McGill and it was shocking the number of people who scoffed at us while we ran it. Students literally came up to us laughing and said, “Don’t you see the irony of what you’re doing?” They thought it was hilarious that our advertising sign had both the words “Obesity” and “Bake Sale” together. In a way, I suppose it is ironic if you believe that eating baked goods leads to obesity and we were raising money for obesity by selling baked goods… But from our standpoint, it wasn’t because we know that eating baked goods don’t necessarily lead to obesity and people who are obese can still eat baked goods. As well, we were annoyed because the baked goods we made were a super healthy spin on some of your typical snacks (think energy bars with dates, nut butters and nuts) so they had tons of nutritional power and were low in refined sugars. I guarantee that a granola bar people buy at the campus convenience store has far more sugar and way less nutritional value than our treats did. Anyways, I think it’s unfair for people to raise their eyebrows at you when you choose to eat pizza or forgo your exercise routine one day simply because you are an obesity researcher and you should ‘know better’ than to indulge. The idea that you have to have a total elimination diet to avoid being obese, overweight or even unhealthy is total nonsense. And this idea speaks volumes to the misunderstanding of the general public about what a healthy diet and lifestyle really consist of.

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  8. Lisa R. says:

    I came to say what orchid64 said. Being a purist would make you less credible in many contexts. Re: professional mixing of messages, you’re not saying “no soda pop for anyone ever,” you’re saying “drink just a little,” and modeling that same behavior. All good!

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  10. Lorrie says:

    As a dietitian I run into this all the time, but mostly because people don’t want to eat with me because they are so worried I’ll judge their food choices. I can’t explain how I feel as well as my favourite dietitian….well known (by dietitians!) for her work with children…so here’s a great quote by Ellyn Satter:

    What is Normal Eating?
    Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

    In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

    Can’t say it better than that!

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  11. Galina L. says:

    Since I had the worst health in my life when I seriously cut on red meat and saturated fats, I can honestly tell you beforehand, that I am prejudged against diets low in meats and eggs, and I don’t consider vegetarian eating healthy. As your wife, I cook all meals in my home all my life, make my own sauerkraut, eat organ meats and make bone broths. I guess if you eat mostly vegetarian meals, even KFC meal could be a healthy addition.
    Without getting farther into vegetarianism/meat eating territory, I can tell that what one eats at home and everyday matters the most, and what is consumed during social interactions, doesn’t. I raised a very healthy son (he has no cavities,thin and muscular) following such principal. I asked him to never marry a vegetarian when time comes to get married.

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  12. I have to side with Orchid64 and possibly antagonize David Cybulski. As the obesity problem in America has continued getting worse for decades, there have been more and more voices in the conversation demanding total obedience to more and more exotic diets, and zero deviance. All the while, obesity keeps increasing. I really think it’s taking us in the wrong direction. It’s very easy to pinpoint somebody _else’s_ little picayune slip-up(s) or indulgences in terms of diet or health, and then heap blame and opprobrium on them, without seeing the whole picture. I think it’s a fundamentally wrong path. Believe me David, when I encounter some health professional who says it’s possible and desirable for me to cut out 100% of bad behavior, of any kind, I nod my head and smile — but it doesn’t serve as a good example, only a discouragement. I go home thinking “Well his way is certainly not for me, I’d never be able to stick to it.”
    A political philosopher whose writings I like, Charles Eisenstein, recently came out with a book called “The Yoga of Eating”. Anyone reading this might find it interesting. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard him give some radio interviews about it. In the interviews, he crystallizes a view which I think is an unspoken or even unrecognized truth for the vast majority of people. Basically he says, while there is a time and a place for willpower and discipline — especially right at the beginning of shifting yourself onto a new path — that time and place for willpower and discipline is _NOT_ 24/7/365. A successful strategy for any kind of life change is one that works with who you are, rather than 24/7/365 trying to fight your own nature for the rest of your life. Yes, it is possible to change, learn, and acquire new habits that are at first foreign to you. And that may require discipline. But due to this country’s Puritan heritage, the idea that it’s noble to fight nature (outwardly or inwardly) every single waking moment has been vastly over-rated, far beyond the point where it’s useful.

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