September 7, 2015

At work the other day, a colleague was discussing her headaches and the meds she takes to control them. I chose to inform her of the cases that I have seen where food elimination trials often find the headache trigger and eliminate the headaches altogether obviating the need for medicine. To no surprise, she laughed it off as unlikely as if medicine is always the better choice.

What is it about food that makes us choose it over health? Why do we eat things that we know hurt us? Is it that enticing to eat a doughnut knowing that in an hour you will have mirror regret or worse joint aches or headache? It is clear that we are creatures that love salt, fat and sugar.

In the psychological world of education, the social scientists are working on ways to change or "nudge" us into healthy choices over the current dilemma. There are environmental influences all around us. If you live in a food desert, than you will see everyone eating processed junk food and that will become your social norm. Scientists call this "choice architecture", the description of environmental influences on how we make a decision. Governments around the world are developing behavioral units to pursue this agenda. Sounds very Orwellian and in some ways it is.

However, for decades now, companies have already had behavioral units in place to nudge you into all of the foods they wish to sell you. Many of them are known to be unhealthy. Did you ever notice the subtle way Subway blows the oven smell into the street where you walk? How about the Super Bowl ads? Or Nascar advertising with an entire car painted as Monster energy drinks to entice teens?

Unfortunately, we are exposed to choice architecture and nudging all day long and it is getting more targeted with smart phones that GPS our every move so that a company knows all of your habits and preferences. Orwellian it is!

My wife and I debated this topic the other day. She contends that many people are emotional eaters, especially women. She contends that I do not understand emotional eating and she may be correct. I am very goal directed. If something is proven to be bad for me personally, like gluten, it is persona non grata and gone. Knowing this truth, I continue to wonder what is the best answer for those that struggle to make the correct choice for their health.

Is gentle "nudging" by social scientists the best way to counter the omni present negative nudging by the fast food company of the day. It maybe a useful adjunct to what really needs to happen and to some extent is happening in pockets in the US. We need a new societal norm around food. We need grassroots change. We need those that know to keep educating those that will listen and then watch their food purchases/choices drive companies to change their behavior. Witness the small but nice changes by Chipotle, Subway, Walmart, McDonalds and others. They are now changing to non GMO in the case of Chipotle, McDonalds and Wal-Mart are requiring changes from their chicken producers and Subway removed a yoga mat chemical from it's bread!

This morning I learned that McDonalds will now serve breakfast all day long even though opinion poles 5 years ago told them to do it then. Why now? Because less people are going to McDonalds and they are feeling it in the pocket book. Not the end result that I want, but it illustrates the point of grass roots power to alter a billion dollar company.

Now, I would prefer that many of these unhealthy companies fade away like the Blackberry phone, but, I will take baby steps by the masses towards a healthy choice architecture. In the meantime, gently and lovingly nudge your friends through your own actions and deeds that are health oriented!

Grass roots efforts are so powerful! Be great and unite against poor health. It also happens to be much cheaper in the long run.

Dr. M