Too Much Work, Food, Media May Be Hurting Health

MONDAY June 6, 2011 -- America may be seen as a land of plenty, but some experts are beginning to believe that plenty may have become too much.

Cheap and convenient food, busy work and social lives and a constant barrage from media sources have overloaded Americans and are having a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health, according to Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-director of the UCLA Center for Community Health and the Global Center for Children and Families.

All of this prosperity goes against the survival instincts that human beings adopted as they evolved, said Rotheram-Borus, who teaches a class at the UCLA Family Commons titled "Too Much? How to Do Less & Enjoy More."

"We were groomed for millennia to survive on too little," she said. "We didn't have enough food. We didn't have enough clothing. Our genetic code was built on those who could survive adversity."

But because it's ingrained in human nature to enjoy what you have when you have it, people may have taken too well to having too much.

Cheap fast food has led to Americans eating an average of 1,000 more calories a day than they need, Rotheram-Borus said. Constant media exposure creates stress while also numbing people to normal human interaction. And to pay for it all, people are working longer hours and enduring longer commutes.

Dr. Patricia Wong, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and a spokeswoman for the American Psychiatric Association, said that the advent of text messaging and smart phones has added to people's stress because they "create a pressure to be constantly available" that used to be endured only by doctors, police officers, firefighters and other professionals who spend much of their lives on call.

"Everyone is on call every minute of their lives now," she said. "There's no wonder people feel stressed out. Now mundane life is an emergency."

But doctors are finding that when people cut back -- by eating less or reducing their media viewing, for instance -- their mental and physical health improves, Rotheram-Borus said.

"The shift to paring down is new," Rotheram-Borus said. "Now we do better if we have less."

She emphasized that these problems are societal in nature. "It's structural," she said. "Changes in society have been major in the last 30 years, and we haven't adjusted our lifestyles. These are structural problems that have nothing to do with people making bad decisions."

Nonetheless, if something isn't done about this, Rotheram-Borus said, she sees a future in which obesity is rampant, stress is overwhelming and everyone is deep in debt from trying to fulfill their various appetites.

Wong doesn't completely agree with Rotheram-Borus' hypothesis. For example, she thinks most stress these days is not caused by having too much but rather by hoping to maintain what you already have in tough economic times.

"I don't think, in this current climate, that is as relevant to people as real economic need," Wong said. "I do know people who are driven by that 'chase of a dream,' but the general public is stressed out because they're wondering if they're going to keep their job or pay the rent."

And, though Wong agrees that stress from overfilled lives is contributing to the obesity epidemic, she doesn't think it's because people haven't adapted to having food readily available.

"People are overwhelmed, and they don't know how to deal with everything and become stressed or depressed," she said. "They turn to eating as a form of self-therapy."

But if people want to improve their health by cutting back, Rotheram-Borus and Wong suggest that they:

  • Set a consistent routine that is aligned with the values they want their children to have. For example, make family dinners the norm, rather than an occasional treat. "If you value your kids more than your job, you need to be at home for dinner," Rotheram-Borus said. "If you want your kids to be balanced human beings, you can't work 100 hours a week yourself."
  • Take a time out before making a purchase. Be clear about what you need when you go into a store.
  • Cut back on your food intake, and choose healthy foods. Throw out all the junk food in your house. "Once you have it in the house, you're very likely to eat it," Rotheram-Borus said.
  • Turn off the cell phone and disconnect from other media for a set period of time each day. "The reality is, in most situations a text message can wait," Wong said.
  • Remember that gifts don't always have to be purchases. Experiences, favors and thoughtful gestures can be just as meaningful.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on maintaining emotional health.

Posted: June 2011


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