I’m a big fan of science, and I particularly enjoy reading about research that provides new insights into human behavior. Some of those studies, however, strike me as pretty useless and make me wonder if the people involved in them have ever actually met any humans.
A good example of such a study was the one published a few weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association that purported to provide us with some “ground-breaking” news on diet and weight loss. It seems that these researchers expended significant time and money to discover that we don’t need to count calories to lose weight, we just need to pay attention to the kinds of food we eat.
The takeaway was that instead of keeping a running tab on calories consumed a person looking to lose weight merely needs to cut back on added sugar, white bread and highly processed foods, and eat mostly fresh fruits, vegetables and a little lean meat.
Wow, scientists, what a breakthrough! I had no idea that weight loss was tied to eating less junk food and that I all I have to do is snack on broccoli instead of Cheetos if I want to get fit. If only someone had told me that sooner!
Seriously guys, everyone already knows what a healthy diet looks like. Of course if you confine your grocery shopping to the fresh produce section you’re going to get healthier and lose weight. That isn’t news to anyone. The problem is that the Little Debbie aisle is way more tempting to most people than the produce aisle, and pizza delivered to my door makes for a much quicker and tastier meal than a home-made salad.
The problem is not that we don’t know that food selection is the key to weight loss, the problem is that for most of us our taste buds and our laziness are stronger motivators than our desire to get in shape.
It is really a question of willpower, and some more interesting and less self-evident research than the study cited above has provided us with some interesting insights on that subject in recent years. It turns out that humans tend to overvalue their own ability to resist temptation and relying on willpower alone to accomplish things like changing your eating habits is usually a losing strategy.
A number of experiments on human behavior have revealed that one factor separates those who appear to exercise great self-control from those who do not. And it’s not strength of will or mental toughness, it’s something much more simple. The people who don’t give in to temptation are those who don’t experience as much of it as those who do.
Put a plate of fresh-baked cookies in front of someone who likes cookies and they are almost certain to eat them. The only way it won’t happen is if that person just doesn’t like cookies or they are tied to the chair and can’t reach the plate. Otherwise they are almost certain to turn into the cookie monster, especially if no one is around to watch.
With that in mind, I think there are only two realistic ways we could combat our obesity epidemic.
One would be to make easy access to tasty, convenient, fattening food less easy somehow. A “fat tax” would be the most obvious way to do it. Double the price of a bag of Doritos or a Double Whopper and people wouldn’t be able to afford as many of them. Actually you might have to triple or quadruple the price, but you get the idea.
The other option is for food scientists to invent delicious, super-convenient food that is also low calorie and healthy. Basically we need junk food that is good for you. I’m sure someone is working on this right now and they are trying with things like “vegetable chips,” but we clearly are not there yet.
Unless we make junk food either much less accessible or more healthy, we aren’t going to make much of a dent in our collective weight problem and we might as well get used to fact that there will continue to be “more of us to love.”
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.