Obesity by osmosis? Read it and eat

I was born and raised in New York, went to medical school here and have my practice in the city. And, naturally, I read the New York Times every day. So when I read an article in a medical journal recently about how my hometown paper was the subject of an obesity study, I was obviously curious as to what it was all about.

This study looked at obesity from a mind/body connection and examined whether reading about food results in “brainwashing.” Sort of an “obesity by osmosis” effect in which just the mere description of certain foods has such a profound influence, you’ll crave them to the point of “needing” to eat them.

My gut reaction? What a bunch of baloney!

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a mind/body connection when it comes to food. But that doesn’t mean food has to rule your life to the point of becoming obese! Not by a long shot.

But according to this study, apparently this has been the case for many people over the last 50 years.

The researchers in this study analyzed five decades’ worth of trending “food words” in major newspapers like the New York Times and the London Times. It found that articles about popular foods can predict a region’s obesity level within the next three years. It’s interesting to note the food words came from articles about food and not from advertisements.

The researchers honed in on two primary categories of foods. First was HEALTHY fruits and vegetables. The second was UNHEALTHY sweet and salty snacks.

Then the researchers accessed reports from government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Commerce (USDC) to get the top five foods in each of these four groups.

They found that the top five fruits consumed in the US were oranges, apples, grapes, bananas, and pineapples. And the top five vegetables were lettuce, corn, onions, carrots, and cucumbers. The top five sweet snack foods that were marketed in the US were cookies, chocolate, candy, cake, and ice cream. And the top five salty snack foods were potato chips, tortilla chips, crackers, popcorn, and pretzels.

And, as it turned out, the more snacks were mentioned and the less fruits and vegetables were mentioned in any given newspaper, the higher the obesity rate was in that area.

The study found that vegetables were mentioned 46% less in The New York Times than they were 50 years ago. Yet articles that mentioned sweet snacks and salty snacks, increased by 310% and a whopping 417%, respectively. (A surge that makes me want to call the editor-in-chief myself.)

The data showed a correlation between an area’s obesity rate based on whether snacks were written with glorified descriptions, and if fruits and vegetables were shown in a negative manner, and how frequently these descriptions occurred.

As much as it pains me to say it, perhaps there is some truth to this study. Because the sad fact is, the obesity rate has risen dramatically in the past 50 years. In 1960 it was 13.4%. Fifty years later—in 2010—it had skyrocketed to 33.8% …and it continues to rise.

And while I don’t understand how fruits and vegetables could ever get “bad press,” I do know that stories glorifying all manner of junk food have taken over the “Food” section of my beloved Times.

But as I said above, it is possible to put mind over matter when it comes to external influences over your cravings. You (unfortunately) can’t change how pervasive food has become in our society—from advertising to TV to newspaper articles. But you CAN change how you respond to it.

So the next time you pick up a newspaper and open it to the Dining section…or start flipping channels and land on the Food Network, here are a few words of wisdom to repeat to yourself:

“Food is only meant to be nourishment.”

“Food is what our bodies need to function.”

“Food will never marry me, food will never make me rich, food will never give me all that I desire, and it will never make me truly happy.”

You can find more mantras and motivation like this in my book Thin for Good—along with some recipes—like “Rosemary-scented zucchini soup” and “Cauliflower laced with capers and Parmesan”—that prove vegetables can be every bit as exciting and delicious as all those sweet and salty snacks trying to brainwash you.


“Fifty years of fat: news coverage of trends that predate obesity prevalence,” BMC Public Health 2015; 15: 629 (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/15/629)