A couple of months ago, New York Times ran an interesting article about an MIT trained mathematician and his attempts at quantifying what causes obesity and how we can solve this issue that has weighed us down, literally. After a few years of research Carson Chow, the academic, came up with a conclusion that seems as obvious as it is profound – we’re a nation where 2 in 3 are overweight, and 1 in 3 are obese because we eat too much.
Lets digest that a bit. There are several factors conflated into that one conclusion. We are a nation of increasingly “productive” people, or in other words, people who are slowly losing their work-life balance. This means that cooking healthy meals at home becomes less of an option and eating out or ordering in seem more convenient. This leaves us at the mercy of fast food manufacturers or the food industry in general where the goal is not to see what diet keeps us the most healthy, but the goal is to maximize their bottom lines. As a result, we order and consume more fatty foods as well as foods where there are much fewer “good calories”.
In addition to this, as shown by several studies, when we’re more stressed or “ego depleted”, we go for the junk food. And we eat more. Given the direction in which our lives are headed in today’s economy, this double whammy adds to the problems of higher caloric intake as well as lower quality caloric intake. Easy access to junk food at workplace cafeterias and school vending machines makes the ego depletion time much quicker as well, resulting in the habitual afternoon walks to the cafeteria in search for the sugar high.
As Dr. Chow shows, the human body is also a feedback loop that takes time to arrive at its equilibrium. So if we set ourselves a goal for weight reduction, it takes a long while of sticking to a reduced caloric intake for us to lose the weight, and to keep it off. This demands a lot of will power and attention from weight watchers, making it harder to accomplish. So give yourselves those infrequent binges to satisfy some craving. But keep at your baseline daily caloric intake goal for a while if you intend to keep that weight off.
Another problem that the modern office worker faces is that of the transition from homo sapiens to homo cubiculus. Most of us spend much of our waking days in front of a computer in a cubicle. Many, such as myself, spend time out of work at home with kids and neglect to expend any significant amount of energy burning calories or working out. However, we forget this conveniently when we sit down to eat. As a result way more calories go in than what could be burnt off doing our daily activities. On top of these calories, we consume a lot of empty calories in the day in the form of soda, which makes things worse. As some studies are hinting at, soda also modifies the way in which we metabolize food, adding to the obesity problem.
In the mix of all these external stimuli, our minds play games on us too. As Brian Wansink showed in his “bottomless soup bowl” research, how much we eat is also decided by visual cues as much as by hunger triggers. By manipulating size of portions or automatically feeding more soup into a soup bowl, he was able to change how much people ate and felt sated at the end of those experiences. The fact that restaurant plate sizes have been growing over time is not a good sign in this regard – the visual cues ask that we have more food on those plates for us to feel satisfied.
So where do we go from here? The Produce for Better Health Foundation has published a really nice report on the behavioral economics and psychology of fruit and vegetable consumption. Dr. Chow, as an outcome of his research has also setup a “Body Weight Simulator” site under the aegis of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which allows you to set goals based on where you are and where you want to be, and offers suggestions on changes to caloric intake. There are countless weight loss programs, celebrity-endorsed diets and all the buzz around those. But the key here is to not forget the behavioral and psychological cues that are an important part of achieving the goal. And the social of course, as shown by groups such as Weight Watchers – when you have others who care about your well-being as well, it makes it easier for you to stick to your goals. I should however point out that the land of behavioral economics based results is also littered with questionable studies such as the Christiakis and Fowler study that claims that friends can cause one to become obese. In my opinion this confuses correlation and causation quite badly, as well as not accounting for several other confounding factors that might have impacted the significance of the findings. Nevertheless it seems to be catching on in terms of social currency – so in case you’re unsure, go find some lean friends!
In conclusion I agree with Dr. Chow’s final assertion that we should stop marketing food to children. Childhood obesity is a big problem and while marketing unhealthy junk food to this demographic might be legal, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth and leaves one wondering about the ethics behind those acts. Here is where we can all vote with our wallets – if only we had the time of day to care and act, and share!