Monday, January 10, 2011

Rationality Goes out the Window When it Comes to Food

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Rationality Goes out the Window When it Comes to Food

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Some topics are challenging to approach from a rational perspective. Especially experiential topics: food, love, and music, for example. Although rationality has a place in all three, only a vulcan would put the science before the sensual.

Since the 1980s, dietary guidelines have shown that eating fruits, vegetables, & whole grains and avoiding refined sugars & saturated fats can help us steer clear of chronic disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated & published every five years. Almost everything has a nutrition label on it. We have more information about what we should eat and what we are eating than we’ve ever had before. And yet, all of this information has failed to have a positive impact on our eating habits. According to the CDC, only 26.3% of people eat vegetables three times per day and 32.5% eat fruit twice a day, a slight decrease from a decade ago. Rationality just isn’t a priority when it comes to food.

If we want to be healthy, and have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, why aren’t we?

It’s easy to dismiss this behavior as irrational or as a lack of willpower over tasty food & cultural challenges such as:

  • Dual income families & long hours on the job leave less time for planning meals and cooking fresh food
  • The increasing availability of low quality, easily prepared food impacts our choices at the grocery
  • Th eating habits of the family unit when only one member wants to diet, especially if that person is the family cook.
  • The abundance of conflicting diet & nutrition information can be confusing & overwhelming

These are all valid issues, but they may not tell the whole story.

Stacey Finkelstein from the University of Chicago did a study on the psychological components of food choice that uncovered some thought provoking results. In one case, she distributed identical protein bars, but told some subjects the bars were “healthy” and others that they were “tasty”. The subjects with the “healthy” bars reported less satisfaction.

In another case, she let half the subjects choose whether or not to eat the bar, and told the other half it was their job. The ones who weren’t given a choice reported less satisfaction.

So, if this study is correct, even controlling for taste, we don’t respond favorably to being told what to eat, and we don’t like eating anything we perceive as healthy – even if it tastes good! That doesn’t bode well for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

It may seem irrational that one would want to be healthy, have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, and still choose not to, but ultimately choices are logical. There’s a payoff – time savings, laziness, pleasure, perception – that is just more important that achieving health. And ultimately, what’s most important to you is your choice to make.


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