We need to make eating real food a whole lot easier

I want to commend Mark Bittman on the underlying message in his recent editorial in the New York Times, “What Causes Weight Gain.” Bittman suggests that as much as we need research to “determine precisely what causes diet related chronic illnesses,” we also need a program that will get this “single, simple message across: eat real food.” While we have yet to isolate what in our diet is contributing to obesity and related disease, it is likely not the sugar in an apple, the fat in an almond, or the sodium in beets. So while we work on identifying what is causing America’s weight problem, a broad campaign telling people to “eat real food” is a good first step in reversing the trend.

But if we are serious about that message, we need to make eating real food a whole lot easier, and recognize that people may need a little help. The burgeoning field of behavioral science shows that people often fail to make rationale decisions that are in their best self interest, even when they want to.

For example, if you ask people if they would prefer fruit or chocolate as a snack at a meeting next week, the vast majority say fruit. But when next week comes around and you present the same group with both fruit and chocolate, most take the chocolate.

Another powerful principle founded in behavioral economics is the effect of the default option: People tend to select the default, or in other words, “go with the flow,” even when the decision is on serious matters such as finance or whether to donate one’s organs. These are just two of many examples that illustrate the influence of context and environment on our decisions.

In their hit book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein coin the term “choice architecture,” and encourage both policy makers and individual actors to proactively design environments that will help (or nudge) people to make decisions consistent with their true preferences. One of the biggest takeaways from behavioral economics is that environment matters, and often outweighs individual willpower.

I’ve experimented with this myself and found that when I stock the kitchen with just real food, I eat real food. But when I stock the kitchen with a mix of real food and highly processed junk food (or what some experts have called “food-like substances”) I eat the crap. This should come as no surprise since nearly every element of junk food is scientifically engineered to be addictive – from amount of added sugars, to the texture, to the packaging it comes wrapped in.

Take this outside of my personal kitchen and the odds of making a healthful eating choice only get worse. Walk the aisles of your local grocery store and see what is at eye level (you’ll have a greater chance of selecting these foods). My guess is the vast majority of it is not real food. Check what types of snacks are offered by the cash registers in the “impulse buy” section of the store. I doubt you’ll find ready-to-eat packs of fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, grocery stores are just the tip of the iceberg. Everything from restaurants, to convenience stores (which substitute for grocery stores in some low-income areas), to even some school meal programs are environments that make junk food the path of least resistance and/or default option. When it comes to eating healthy, the deck is rigged against us.

If we are going to invest in a broad campaign telling people to “eat real food,” we must also invest in a broad campaign to make eating real food an “easier” choice to make. This is no small task, and will require policy that favors “choice architecture” that is likely to upset the food industry. It is at least a five- to 10-year project, but one we must commit to if we are serious about confronting obesity.

In the mean time, stock your kitchen with only real food.

Brad Stulberg is a health consultant who blogs at the Huffington Post.  He can be reached on Twitter @Bstulberg.

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  • QQQ

    “I want to commend Mark Bittman on the underlying message in his recent editorial in the New York Times,”

    The New York Times is the same paper that gets a kick on doctor bashing saying they make too much money and are the reason for driving healthcare cost up! Also the paper is one sided and that’s just one of the reasons why I stop my subscription years ago with them!

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    This one is easy. Stop the damn corn subsidies. The market will take care of everything else.

    • RenegadeRN

      I agree, and would add soybeans to your list.

  • Sara Stein MD

    72% dark chocolate for the health benefits, feel free to stock it in your house.The candy counter chocolate is mostly 10% cocoa, meaning chocolate flavored sugar butter candy. Eating real food does not mean never having a treat, it means the treat should be real food too!

    Aside from the obvious problems with cost and access to real food, there is the problem with cooking. Most parents are so overloaded with work and kids and school and home that daily cooking is improbable. Which brings us back to easy food.

    And yes, Big Food has brought us to this moment, as has farm subsidies for grains, and industrial pollutants. GMO salmon are 30% bigger with 70% less omega fatty acids. So we will have people buy the less expensive salmon, thinking they are eating well, with minimal benefit. Feeding more has turned into feeding no one very well. I don’t see an easy fix coming anytime soon, unfortunately.

    • RenegadeRN

      Agree with your points. Doesn’t the fact that the most of the world will not accept or import our GMO foods tell us ANYTHING? They are not beholden to Big Food.

      Russia, last week I believe, joined the European Union, Australia and Japan in banning any US foods made with GMO. Those are just the countries I am aware of, there may be more. I think it SHOULD send a huge message to American food manufacturers, but I guess they have enough guinea pigs right here in the US who unknowingly buy their products.
      We can’t even get legislation passed to make them state on packaging if there are GMOs in the product/ or in the case of single ingredient products ( like an apple) a sticker saying if it is a genetically modified product.

      Absolute power, corrupts absolutely.

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