Food Obsession and Overconsumption

Students in Steve Finn’s spring special topics course on Food Waste (MET ML702 E1) are contributing this month’s blog posts. Today’s post is from Wiley McCarthy.

Food waste discussions generally focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3: “By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” (  Recommended solutions include gleaning unharvested crops, redistributing surplus prepared meals from restaurants and schools, and transporting manufacturers’ and retailers’ surplus stock to food banks.  BUT, what about considering individual overconsumption as a form of food waste? Let me be clear that I am not attacking the visibly overweight: a veteran myself of myriad forms of disordered eating, I confidently assert that those ranging from seriously underweight to morbidly obese can experience malnourishment and serious health issues when they find themselves sucked into a pattern of overconsumption. The attendant physical and mental illnesses fall under the aegis of SDG 3.4 “By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being” (

In Obsession, (Weinstein Books, 2013), by Mika Brzezinski and Dianne Smith, the authors discuss their personal food histories. Mika’s story involved food restriction, periodic “binge-ing,” and exercise bulimia, while Diane’s encompassed yo-yo dieting, regular overeating, lack of exercise, and health issues.  Despite vastly different behaviors, their food obsession shared a focus on shame, willpower, and hunger. Public opinion would blame each for weakness, lack of discipline (or conversely, OCD), or poor personal accountability; yet, environmental factors contributed to their food issues.

How did a pattern of constant, non-nutritious eating develop in the United States?  First, a misguided emphasis on low-fat foods since the 1970s prompted food manufacturers to increase the carbohydrate (read SUGAR) content of their products. After all, if tasty fat is removed, something must be added to make the foods palatable.  As we prioritized convenience, ease of preparation, and shelf-stable food storage, whole foods were increasingly processed, destroying nutrients and reducing fiber content.  Food manufacturers opted for inexpensive high fructose corn syrup to save money, trans fats to extend shelf life, artificial flavorings and colors to increase products’ “curb appeal,” chemical preservatives and stabilizers to retard spoilage, and physical manipulation of whole foods (grinding, pulping, mashing) to form identical easily-packaged shapes.  Many of these foods, in handy packages with shiny pictures and eye-catching logos, were geared for convenient (read CONSTANT) snack or other non-mealtime consumption.

Then we arrive at what I consider the single most important factor—the ubiquity of food in American society.  In an observable change in social mores during the last 35 years, we now eat in our cars, in libraries, on the street, in our beds, at our desks, at sporting events, during movies, in class, on the subway, on the couch, and–well, you probably recognize yourself in one of these situations. Food, particularly the highly processed (and thus infinitely palatable) substances, is everywhere. For those subject to carbohydrate or sugar addiction, it’s like an alcoholic walking through a pub all day. Both foodies and dieters are allowed to obsess and make wildly random or restrictive food choices, however. Food is an acceptable drug.

How can we continue weight-shaming our neighbors and ourselves when we suffer a 24/7 barrage of enticing non-foods? We face gum and cookies at the grocery checkout; pretzels and candy at the Staples checkout; chocolate bars at the department store lingerie counter (!)—all legitimizing consumption of carbohydrate, sugar, and fat concoctions anytime, anywhere. Most will face willpower fatigue at some point and give in to these foods that contribute nothing but the classic “empty calories” to our diets. If we do not recognize the dangerous role ubiquitous food plays in our modern lives, we will continue to waste food by making it less nutritious and by overconsuming it to the detriment of our health.

We face a public health crisis of proliferating diet- and weight-related diseases, particularly diabetes, heart disease, weight-related orthopedic issues, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and a range of mental health issues accompanying body dysmorphia and food obsessions. As these run rampant— often invisibly—in the United States, the increase is being replicated abroad as more nations adopt the SAD (standard American diet). The SDG 12.3 framework encompasses the waste of foods being processed into non-nutritive substances and the waste (in decreased availability to others) of overconsumption on an individual basis. Under SDG 3.4, diet-related illnesses qualify as chronic non-communicable diseases. Let’s put a stop to both.

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