Many things influence a person's eating habits. Knowledge of what is considered healthy and what is not would be one, but I doubt it would make it to the top of the list. Certainly, at this moment, headline news about what the elite athletes in Rio consume to help them reach peak performance (devised with the help of dieticians and nutritionists) might be another. Yet, in the end, such information may only serve as just one more fact to feed our curiosity about a sports star.
Let's face it; so much of what we consume is not driven by knowledge, but by basic craving and impulse. The process of what we eat starts in our heads. And no one is more in our heads than a food industry that spends billions of dollars in marketing its message in every means possible. Says research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, food cravings often arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as calming stress and reducing anxiety. And cravings that are spurred by emotions are typically for foods containing fat, sugar, or both. Now think of how often during these Olympic Games a moment of emotional triumph, of peak fitness and performance, has been followed by a warm and fuzzy word from the sponsors of a popular tempting pleasure.
I think it's lost on no one that, as we bid the games adieu, the tally of medals handed out at the Rio Olympics will pale in comparison to the number of commercials viewers will have endured. And when it comes to world records, NBC hit theirs before the first event took the stage — $1.2 billion in national ad sales. And high among the biggest spenders were quick-service restaurants, beverages and package goods.
Nutrition experts long ago conceded the effectiveness of such marketing. But its impact is more than just selling products; the sheer tonnage of commercial messages serves to create a disconnect between what nutrition experts and the public perceive to be healthful foods. An example of this was found in a recent poll by The New York Times. Among those surveyed, 71 percent believed granola bars to be healthy, while only 28 percent of the hundreds of nutritionists surveyed agreed with that assessment.
Is it any wonder that, despite evidence to the contrary, most Americans say they have a healthy diet while more than 80 percent of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables? And why, at the same time, so many Americans overeat refined grains and sugar?
You also have to wonder if publicizing the eating habits of Olympic athletes will help overcome this problem or will it merely add to the confusion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average woman should typically consume no more than about 2,000 calories per day, while the average man should consume about 2,400 calories a day. As recently reported in livescience.com, a 4-hour gymnastics workout burns a mere 1,000 calories, far less than the 2,400 calories burned during a brisk, 4-hour jog.
An athlete's diet is a complicated thing. What Olympians eat can vary tremendously depending not only on the events they're competing in, but also their body type and lifestyle outside the Olympic arena. Their diets are affected not only by the demands of their sports, but by everything else in their lives; things that are almost impossible to accurately measure and factor in.
In an article in The New Yorker, former gymnast Dominique Moceanu said that her former coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, had her on a meager diet of 900 calories a day. Meanwhile, super star Simone Biles was said to have fewer restrictions; eating foods such as pork chops, chicken sandwiches and even the occasional soft drink.
Although we're told by trainers that the ideal diet is one full of minimally processed foods, healthy whole grains, fruits and vegetables, not all elite athletes are consuming such healthful fare. In his book "Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography," Usain Bolt, one of the best athletes on the planet, said he subsisted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics almost exclusively on chicken nuggets, french fries and fast food apple pies — to the tune of about 1,000 nuggets during his 10-day stay.
"We don't know how to measure diet or exercise," Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the National Cancer Institute's division of disease prevention once noted. So where does that leave us in trying to answer this question about how to eat or how much to exercise?
New York Times reporter Gina Kolata recently described the disconnect as a problem of signal to noise. We have trouble discerning the signal — such as an ideal diet is one full of minimally processed foods, healthy whole grains, fruits and vegetables — because of the conflicting noise of differing views, opinions and competing clinical reports surrounding the question.
While well intentioned experts in health and nutrition battle it out to establish the true gold standard of measurement for diet and exercise, the food industry's marketing message continues right along in full stride. As Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders recently noted: "Unhealthy food is highly accessible, it's convenient, it's engineered to taste good, it's heavily promoted, and it's inexpensive. If you wanted to engineer a good food environment, you'd have the reverse of all that."
Now there's a feat of Olympic proportions.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.