Unhealthy Habits: The Role of Circumstance

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unhealthy eating habitsBy Chris Sandel

During the Vietnam War, the number of soldiers using opiate products on a regular basis was worryingly high. In the earlier stages of the war marijuana use was fairly common but from about 1969 onwards heroin and opium became more of an issue. It was estimated in 1971 that half of US soldiers had tried opiates and a report from the same year claimed that 15% of the troops were addicted. The U.S. government was concerned when the war ended that there would be a steep rise in the number of addicts in America as these soldiers returned home.

There are conspiracy theories that comment these numbers were hugely over estimated. In 1971 Nixon declared his War on Drugs and obviously it would be an easier sell if the numbers looked higher. But whatever the truth, there is no denying that the use of opiates by US soldiers was high during the war.

What was interesting was that the vast majority returned home and immediately ceased opium use and mostly without any noticeable withdrawal symptoms. Obviously availability played a role in this. But by returning from a high stress environment (a war zone a in a foreign country) to the low stress environment (jubilation of being home) it eliminated the need for the regular high and would have created its own high.

bad food habitsIn 1971, the same year Nixon created the war on drugs and when opiate use was increasing in Vietnam, Stanford University ran an experiment that was to become famous. Known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 participations were arbitrarily split into two groups, with 12 role-playing prisoners and 12 role-playing guards. The experiment was to last 2 weeks and was going to investigate the mental and emotional changes that a person goes through when they are a prisoner.

The experiment is explained in great detail in the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. It is a rather harrowing read; in very little time what started out as role-playing became real life. The guards took to their new positions with brutality and mental and physical abuse was rife. The prisoners became insular and it was like an accelerated course in learned helplessness. They either became robots blindly following the guard’s requests or began to rebel – trying to escape or going on a hunger strike.

The experiment was meant to last for two weeks but was stopped after six days when three prisoners had been released early due to mental breakdowns.

All participants, whether they ended up being prisoners or guards, considered themselves pacifists and non-violent types, your quintessential hippies. But the setting and the situation changed all of this in a very short space of time. The book goes on to review the situation at Abu Ghraib prison, where prisoners were tortured and photos were taken showing the depraved behaviour. It was like history repeating itself but without someone pulling the plug after six days.

Courtney Martin Perfect Girls Starving DaughtersCourtney E Martin wrote one of my favourite books on food issues, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Martin developed an eating disorder (an addiction in a sense) while at college and decided to she wanted to prevent others from going down the same path. A modern day feminist, she wanted to help women feel empowered rather than a slave to the desire to be thin at all costs. The book looks at food issues for an array of angles and a lot of it is based on the thousands of interviews that she did with guys and girls ranging from 8-9 years of age and upwards.

One of the themes of the book is how many women develop eating disorders when they go off to college. While a lot of the women already had some tendencies toward food issues, it was going off to college that caused it to become a major, full-blown issue.

She identified the change in environment as a huge factor. Girls who were previously living at home and being looked after by their parents were now off in a new city having to fend for themselves. And not only a new city, but with no familiar friends or support network. Being alone and uncertain, the desire to fit in and be one of the ‘cool kids’ was big. (Even if you don’t want to be a cool kid, at the very least you want to be accepted). At 18, no one is cooler than a thin girl. Under her mentorship you to can learn how to be thin too, all it takes is a regimen of endurance exercise and low-calorie eating. Courtney had this mentorship and it seems so did lots of the women she interviewed.

The drug use during the Vietnam War, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and eating disorders among college girls all share one commonality. In all cases, situational or environmental factors directly impacted behaviour.

While I believe each individual has control of the feelings they choose to feel, what they choose to focus on and the stories they tell themselves, there is no denying that situational factors have an impact. The environment that you grow up in and surround yourself with matters hugely when it comes to the results you get.

Your values or beliefs are directly impacted on by your family and circle of friends. You are, on average, as successful as the people you hang around with. And this is using success in a broad sense of the word. Whether you are talking about money, relationships, world-experience, body shape, whatever. Your results are generally reflective of your environment and situation.

So how can you create a situation that is going to support your health goals and dreams?

I think one of the best ways is to model someone who has achieved what you want to achieve, to model excellence. Now you want to be wary here when picking the right person or people, modeling the thin girl at college who has an eating disorder is merely going to create more of the same. Find someone who has achieved what you want, making sure to take into account all angles.  I know personally how much Matt Stone has had a positive impact on my health, beliefs about diet, and a whole host of other areas. You could do a lot worse than following his advice.

Look for triggers that lead to your unwanted behaviour. Places, situations, thoughts or people can create strong emotions that can lead you down the path of despair and poor food choices. While ultimately you are in control of your decisions, these situations make you feel powerless or worse still, they are so imbedded in your subconscious mind that you don’t even realise you made a decision.

My advice is to sit down with a piece of paper and make a list of your current issues – whether it is binge eating, dieting, excessive drinking etc. Now write down the situational factors that lead to or are associated with these problems; places, situations, thoughts or people.

For example you might want to stop dieting. When you reflect on this you always feel a strong desire to diet after you have…

  1. Stepped on the scales
  2. Read a certain magazine
  3. Met up with a certain friend who is always dieting
  4. Eaten a salad
  5. Watched the biggest loser or extreme makeover on TV
  6. Started saying certain phrases to yourself in a certain tone i.e. why am I so fat, why can’t I lose this belly, etc.

With this information you can start to avoid this behaviour or catch yourself when it starts happening and change it. By identifying a handful of the most important situational factors that lead to your issues, you can give yourself the best chance of making changes and having them stick.

My final tip is to create a compelling future but accept where you are now. Too often people know what they don’t want (i.e. I don’t want to be fat, I don’t want to feel like this) but don’t have a strong clear vision of what they do want. It is important to have goals and a sense of where you want to end up.

Sometimes people will create a strong goal of where they want to be and try to spur themselves on with negative feelings about their current situation. It is one thing to have a desire to make changes and another to despise your current body and health. If you hate yourself when you are fat, you are going to hate yourself when you are thin. You need to accept yourself for who you are or no change in aesthetics is ever going to make you happy in the way you think it will. Matt’s previous article on 1811 Eastlake Ave  gives a good insight into this.

I really believe it is important to become aware of your environmental and situational factors and how they affect your behaviour so you can make the most of them. Rather than being a slave to the surroundings, understand their importance and make the shift so they support rather than hinder your progress.

Chris Sandel is a London-based nutritional therapist, consultant to individuals and corporations, and blogger at www.seven-health.com


  1. I don’t know. Maybe I am misreading this, but I am not sure I agree. In fact, “becoming” and endless “goal-setting” is part of the problem. All the lists in the world should be thrown in a bonfire along with affirmations. In my opinion, you should deepen who you are. That doesn’t mean that you remain static or become passive. It means getting quiet and seeing who you are, and proceeding from there to deepen it.. Otherwise you are going to end up following cultural models of how you should be. You might even think you want to be that cultural model. You’ll be the 5’6 guy who wants to be an NBA player, and thinks he wants that, when really what he wants is to be accepted as a man. In other words, what he really wants is mediated by these culturally inculcated ideals.

    It reminds me of a song by the Ramones :
    I’m going to do it all in a moment of passion.
    Going to get the glory, like Charles Manson.

    • Hi Thomas,

      I totally agree that people should really look inward when setting goals or at the very least fully understand what you are trying to achieve. I like the work done by Cloe Madanes and Anthony Robbins on this topic. They state that everyone has 6 basic needs – certainty, variety, significance, love/connection, growth, contributions. We will value some needs more than others and these needs can be met in a variety of ways. The goals that we set are really just vehicles for how we meet these needs and the exact same goal can be fulfilling a different need in different people.

      For example the goal could be to earn £1,000,000. This could help someone meet their need for certainty as it helps them know they have the money to feel safe and secure. For someone else it could help fulfil variety as it allows them to go on lots of adventures. For someone else it helps them feel significant because for them to feel important they have to have earned a certain amount of money. And so on.

      So when setting goals it is important to really understand what you hope to achieve from the goal, what need are you trying to fulfil. But in mind, just because the goals are helping someone achieve something much deeper doesn’t mean that they should be ignored or avoided.

      • People can thrive on uncertainty, like Cab drivers compared to bankers (see Unfragile book). People can get certainty and love and so on from there places. Self-help gurus like Anthony Robbins don’t mean anything to me or most people and I will follow Jesus or Buddha before any of them. I Also like U.G. Krishnamurti who says things like “your search for happiness is prolonging your unhappiness… Your search for happiness is making you unhappy.” You can be happy and enlightened as homeless person. Pursuing money and other goals is nonsense. There is no external source of happiness or meaning. You will not succeed no matter what you think. “Unless you are at peace with yourself, there can be no peace around the world.” (U.G.)

        • Mercury,

          I don’t think that the search for happiness necessarily leads to unhappiness, I just think that people go about it in the wrong way. They try and fill themselves up with material things and the hollywood type idea of happiness like flash cars and big houses. While I used the example above of making £1,000,0000, this was just an easy way of demonstrating how one goal can fulfil different needs, I wasn’t implying it is the best way to go about it.

          Martin Seligman has studied happiness in great detail and I tend to agree with his findings. Real long term happiness comes in two main ways 1) spending time in ‘flow’ doing things that you enjoy doing and are passionate about 2) contributing to others (i.e Mother Teresa would be the extreme example)

          I don’t think you need to pursue money to be happy but at the same time I don’t think people should actively avoid doing so. Someone isn’t a bad person just because they have made money. The well off person can be just as enlightened as the homeless person you refer to.

  2. First?

    • oops, second :)

  3. hi, unrelated to post – how do i get an avatar for this site? i’m ready to go legit.

    • This is my facebook pic, not sure how it got here exactly!

    • I’ll tell you if you promise to post a picture of yourself…..Go to gravatar: http://en.gravatar.com/

      Upload a file and use the same login and password as you do here.

    • So Sophie, whose directions are you going to follow: mine or Rob’s? I’ll admit that Rob has way more street-cred around here than I do.

      • i followed rob’s directions.

        now let’s see if it shows up.

        • ok. nope.

          • I see you, sophie. Looks like you got it.

      • I thought your directions were much more clear and enticing Thomas. I don’t know why she went for Rob’s. It just doesn’t make sense.

        • Well Matt, let’s face it. Rob has more street-cred and a better smile than me. I thought the mural behind me in the picture might get her to ring my bell, but no banana. I’m a failure.

          • I am straight up gangsta- sophie must’ve known I always keep one in the chamber, in case y’all pondering. Mural Thomas can’t compete with that, yo.

        • please matt have a look at this video. the interesting part starts at 34.30

          it is fascinating.
          it is about the connection between the length of gestation and the energy expenditure of the mother. they say that the body is limited how much energy it can burn. that is the reason why the mother gives birth at nine month.


  4. This really struck a chord with me. I am an American living in Japan and am surrounded by tiny women all day every day. Nearly all of the women around me have smaller frames than I do and are also on seriously low-calorie diets. Two years here (plus 10 vegan years before) wrecked me, but luckily I was given Matt Stone’s stuff and have been working on my metabolism for the last 3 months. I have finally gained some healthy weight back, and plenty of muscle without much exercise. And even though I have gained it in a classic hourglass shape, and have a near “perfect” waist to hip ratio, I still live in a world of tiny women, and it is so crazy hard to be ok with my body. I feel like an amazon warrior woman or a female Buddy the Elf. I am not huge, but the situation of being surrounded by tiny women here puts me in the mental place where I feel gigantic. It is such a struggle to not bathe in self-hatred but I know the path to long term health leads through this craziness, so I will battle on. Reading this really helped! Thank you for writing this article!

    • Hi Lacey,

      Glad to hear that the article struck a chord. I think the first step of dealing with situational affects is recognition that they are their. Being aware of how being surrounded by tiny women is affecting your perception of yourself and your body makes it easier to be rational about the situation. Being objective like this can be really important.

      On the flip side, feelings shouldn’t be something we run away from. Our feelings are created by the things we say to ourselves, what we choose to focus on and our values and beliefs. Use this situation to really analyse this. The more you can understand how these feelings are created, the better understanding you have of yourself and the easier it is to change them.

    • Lacey,

      If you were surrounded by models you might feel right at home.
      They are tall women. True, some are too thin. But, they aren’t

    • I hear you. I live in CA, and there is a very large Asian population here (being on the Pacific Rim.) I am only 5’2″ but I have Gaul size bones. Compared to the men in my family, I’m tiny. Compared to an Asian, I’m a monster. Some of them have mistaken me for a man because of my size. Thats ridiculous, the men in my family are 6′ or larger and look like the guys that do shot put at the olympics or throw trees at the Celtic games. Its really hard to be the odd large woman.

    • Ha I know how you feel. I am large framed and athletic and some of these little skinny girls, they mak me feel like a dude! Lol

    • I agree – I always feel huge when I am in Hong Kong (and don’t talk about Japanese baths! I much prefer to be on my own there), and have been subjected to comments about my size, which is substantial but not huge in NZ. Luckily my Cantonese isn’t up to responding.

    • Ashley, Anne Marie at Cheeseslave has been on many diet escapades through the years. I used to follow her blog and I said something to her when she was on the Tim Ferris diet and she just did not want to hear it. She jumps on one thing, then another, then another. And gets extremely defensive if you express concerns. I don’t really follow her blog much anymore, but I am still on her newsletter list and saw the piece about losing weight. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s being sponsored by fitbit – she had a lot of stuff about them. I’m sure she is a nice person and means well, but I would be very hesitant about taking any health advice from her. I hope people don’t.

      • Yea I guess I came along right around the whole rrarf bit. I knew she was low carb before that- just like me! Then she like went all fruitcake and she’s trying to say she’s not restricting, she’s not hungry, at 800-1000 calories so that makes it cool? And she’s acting like that’s just what you do after you rrarf.

      • Just so you guys know, almost all bloggers make affiliate commission from just about everything they write about. All it takes is getting a special link and you get credit for the sale, whether it’s a book, product, service, porn site, song, you name it. Just linking to Amazon for example will get you 4% of anything purchased during that visit if your link was the portal they entered through. Murky waters on the ethical front. I’ve tried my best to keep my feet as dry as possible over the years.

      • @Amy- OMG!! You are soooo right. Everything she has been commenting about on Facebook lately leads to a link to Amazon. And of course its always for shit I can’t afford. I’ve only been following her blog for two years now and I do see what you are speaking of in your entire comment. The push for products, the eat sugar, don’t eat sugar, the “I homeschool,” and then, the “I’m too busy with my business to homeschool,” her recent quips of her time being so important that it is more efficient for her to hire a nanny for 10 bucks an hour than to actually stop working and pick up her daughter herself. And don’t challenge her on anything she is all hot for right now– she’ll bite you!

        Look, I don’t want to be mean here. I started reading her blog because I think she is a very intelligent woman and she has turned me onto many things that have helped me on my journey of health. But I’ve worked with people with ADD/ADHD and she has all the signs. The excitement of starting something new and then wants to share it with the whole world only to forget about it once something new and flashy catches their attention. Its been really hard to follow her the past year because her blog has changed and the biggest and most annoying one seems to be about driving home the almighty dollar

        • I think it’s fine for bloggers to be affiliates. Lots of them are Amazon affiliates, which is one of the main sources of revenue I think she uses.

          I haven’t read her blog in awhile, but I am super grateful she turned me onto Matt Stone and RRARFing. Good stuff!

          She’s probably not ADD or anything like that. She’s worked through some very long product launches and is pretty consistent with a lot of other things that suggest that she doesn’t have any issues with that kind of stuff. But who knows?

          I DO think she uses sensational and divisive articles to get attention. THAT’s how you drive traffic to your site and get “Google love”. And then there are some of her readers who want to lose weight really badly and buy some of the products she’s promoting.

          I personally had to stop reading the blog post, because it was starting to trigger some of my ED issues.

  5. Thank you for your article Chris Sandel. It was awesome!

    • Hi Beth,

      Thanks, happy you liked it.


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