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Today, I am reviewing an insightful book about the relationship between consumers and food. Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices by Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity, “where food meets future”. Bobo previously served as the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President for Global Policy and Government Affairs at Intrexon Corporation. In 2015, he was named by Scientific American as one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology. Prior to joining Intrexon, Bobo worked at the US Department of State for thirteen years as a senior advisor on global food policy.
After reading it, I felt like I did not really know myself after all. I am a pretty adventurous and active individual. I eat well, exercise, get sleep, and make good choices to stay healthy. Or do I? Are my brain and my body tricking me? Are marketing efforts on social media and at the grocery store completely confusing even the educated consumer? Apparently so.
Here is the framework that Bobo applies to human behavior and our food system:
- The Mindscape: How our minds trick us into thinking we are making the right decisions.
- The Foodscape: How the food landscape (restaurants, TV, radio, social media, grocery) has an invisible hand that guides us toward unhealthy choices.
- Transforming the Foodscape: What we can do to redesign our food system using behavior science to improve food choices and live to be a healthy 100 years old.
Our brains can play tricks on us. Bobo discusses the tendency to hold onto confirmation bias when we agree with the information that confirms what we already believe. This can impact our existing knowledge about food.
Rather than spend time searching for knowledge that challenges our beliefs, we look for facts that support or defend them.
This means that it is hard for us to change our minds. When was the last time you changed your mind? Not about what to have for dinner – but your position on a political issue or a food issue. According to Bobo’s research, those who constantly evaluate their beliefs and are willing to change their mind are those who have the sharpest intellectual capability. This is called “intellectual humility” which is a sign of “curiosity, openness to new information, and ultimately, intelligence.” As we read his book, Bobo is asking us to rethink and be curious and intellectually humble when pondering our relationship with food.
To Decide or Not to Decide
I did not know that we can only make so many decisions in one day. Tired brains make poor decisions, according to Deborah Cohen, author of A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind the Obesity Epidemic – and How We Can End It. “Decision fatigue” happens when our brain – or body – is tired and we just want to make the easiest choice possible.
Think about your decisions at the end of the day. It’s time for dinner and you are rushing to the grocery store between work and home. You have to make choices when browsing the 40,000 items along the aisles. This can be a scary place because we are taught to fear our food.
Tired and hangry, you make the simple decision to have pasta and tomato sauce for dinner. The aisle is full of an overwhelming array of different pasta sauces. Hmm….as you look at the labels that read gluten-free, GMO-free, hormone-free, you forget to look at the more critical label that shows the caloric, fat, and sugar contents. And, when our brains are overworked, we usually want to reward ourselves by buying a special treat like ice cream, cookies, or just one candy bar.
The Health Halo Effect
Have you ever noticed that reading one single word or phrase can influence our choices? This is the “halo effect” in action. For instance, we might see “lowfat” on the label and assume it is low in calories and then eat more than we should. Another example is the label, “natural”, which conjures up beautiful fields, sunny days, and produce coming straight from nature. Truth be told, the USDA has never defined “natural”.
According to Food Insight, the information hub created and curated by nutrition and food safety experts at the International Food Information Council nonprofit organization, 70 percent of consumers perceived that foods with the “natural” label were healthier.
Bobo recommends paying attention to your “halo” foods. “Low in sodium” might mean high in fat or “lowfat” might mean high in sugar. Once you understand what motivates you, then you can carefully select the foods that really are healthy.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
Bobo also reminds us that food is safer today than at any point in human history. He cites Hans Rosling, who wrote the book Factfulness. Our literacy, democratic government, parkland, and food production are just some of the categories that have gotten better over the years. Yet we still have unnecessary fears that signal our brains to worry. Why is this?
Bobo also talks about the availability bias. Our brains like to judge an event depending on how easily we can retrieve it from memory. Of course, when scary thoughts linger in our brain, they prevent us from changing our mind to something more scientifically based even if it is positive.
Alarming news is the media’s “clickbait” and so we are inundated with it causing us to irrationally fear things and worry. For instance, which is more dangerous: sharks or mosquitos? Mosquitoes spread disease and are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. Shark attacks average about 80 a year. So why do we always think of Jaws when we swim in the ocean? Movies about sharks sell better than killer mosquito movies.
After reading the just first section of Bobo’s book, I know more about myself. I now know why I overbuy at the grocery store – especially when I am hangry. I know why when I am out to dinner with friends on a Saturday night and have had a couple glasses of wine, we dive into chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I also know why I might have a snack before dinner after a long day of traveling. What else do we have to guard against?
If we cannot entirely trust our brains, can we trust the environmental factors that influence the quality and quantity of food we eat? According to Bobo, apparently not. The foodscape is any area that affects our food decisions such as at home, grocery stores, gas stations, shops, and restaurants as well as on social media, the radio, and television. Here are three of the most important factors that Bobo outlined which have adversely influenced our health.
It all started at the movie theater. In the 1960s, David Wallerstein wanted his patrons to eat more high-margin products, like popcorn, candy, and sodas. He realized that his customers were not going to get up in the middle of a movie and buy another bag of popcorn. Nor were they going to appear gluttonous and sit down with two bags.
What did Wallerstein do? He made everything bigger. Much to his excitement, sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola shot up. After his movie theater success, Wallerstein went on to work for McDonald’s, where Ray Kroc, McDonald’s CEO, came around to the “supersize” concept in 1972.
We all know what has happened since. But why do we eat so much anyway? As it turns out, our eyes and our stomach are not a good judge of what to eat. Jack Bobo details experiments where participants consumed soup from a tube where they couldn’t see how much they were eating. Because the stomach takes about 20 minutes to tell the brain it is full, they overate.
Our eyes are not much better. People tend to eat what is in front of them. Study after study on meals like macaroni and cheese, sandwich sizes for lunch, even fruits and vegetables, have shown that the bigger the portion, the more people eat.
It Is All About The Label
When I look back at pictures of the 1960s, everyone looks thin and fit. Yet, as a society, we know more about health, wellness, and food than ever. We know that sugar is bad for us. We know to eat healthy fats with omega-3s and limit processed saturated fats, like sausage and bacon. We even have the FDA-mandated Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The hope with labeling was to encourage healthy food to be created by food companies and eaten by the consumer. So what gives?
Bobo says that it is because we really don’t read the labels! According to eye-tracking research, only 9% of people look at the calorie count. Apparently, we all lie to ourselves and think that we read the label, but we just buy what we know and like. Labeling didn’t work on restaurant menus either. Either it is ignored, or consumers look at the dollar per calorie ‘deal’ on food.
The Power of Socialization
Bobo points out that we eat more when we are with friends and family at a holiday meal (that one is obvious) or just on a casual Saturday night. Of course, this has been studied as well and the findings suggest that – the longer we sit, the more we eat. We also overindulge together to assuage the guilt. No one wants to be the only one ordering dessert. This doesn’t mean that you should skip these fun events, it just means that you should pay attention to how much you are eating.
Transforming the Foodscape
As I see it, healthy eating is incredibly difficult. After reading his book, I will never go on “food autopilot” again. I now understand that, at times, I cannot be trusted. Especially with chocolate…
Luckily, I can take comfort knowing that I am not alone, and we have to engage our brain and our stomach when we encounter social media, restaurants, or even our local grocery store. But Bobo also points out that a healthy life is not just looking at food in isolation. He cites Blue Zones, specific regions where locals have exceptional longevity, to demonstrate simple elements to a healthy lifestyle.
In his final chapters, Bobo outlines several ways to weed your way through the complexity of food choices. He also encourages the food industry to take part in his movement to create healthy food options.
You can join Bobo and be part of the movement for healthy eating by following his suggested solutions in his book, which are both for you as a consumer and, just as importantly, those in the food industry.
All is not lost when it comes to our health. We hope Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices readers feel empowered with a new level of awareness and understanding of why we all behave the way we do when it comes to our food choices.
I have outlined just a few of his concepts in this article to give you a flavor of his analysis of our food system. For more detail and clarity on his perspectives, we encourage you to read the book, which you can find on Amazon.