“We have an awful, awful reality right now. America, you’re at the top of your game: This is one of the most unhealthy countries in the world”. (…) We, the adults of this generation, have blessed our children with the destiny of a shorter life span than their own parents. Your child, will live a life ten years younger than you, because of the landscape of food we have built around him.” -Jamie Oliver, TED
(If you can’t see the video ABOVE, please click here to see it at TED.com)
Do you think that we’re ok because we don’t live in America? Think again. The obesity epidemic has no boundaries, and has spread to almost every corner of the Globe. The financial cost to our health system and the social cost in lost lives from this epidemic is now officially larger than that of smoking, homicide, or violent crime.And how did we get here? Because of the food-scape effect. Want to know what that is? Read on.
If you follow the obesity debate internationally, you’ll find plenty of explanations for this new epidemic. According to Jamie Oliver, the food landscape (aka food-scape) we build around ourselves has a massive impact on our eating habits. We have created an environment that values convenience above all else. Why have we exposed so many generations to this set of values? We now live with the consequences: a new generation of quite literally millions of children who do not know or understand the importance of cooking at home, of making choices regarding your eating habits, nor of having a balanced diet.
And just as behavioural economics revolutionised our understanding of how financial systems work, behavioural psychology has also transformed our understanding of why we do what we do. In his best-seller book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” Dr Wansink shares empirical proof that our ‘table-scape’ (the way we set up food and dinner at the table) has a massive influence on whether we over-eat or not.
But should we make this debate a policy matter, or leave each individual to their own devices? Many in the food industry argue that the solution must come from individuals; that the choices people make about physical activity and eating habits are what led us to where we are; and that people need to take more responsibility for their actions, and start making more informed choices. Information, thus, appears as the almost magical solution. But as Dan and Cheap Heath argue in their best-seller “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die“, even the most powerful information will be ignored unless it is crafted in a way that is ‘sticky’ and memorable. Furthermore, Dr Wansink’s social experiments have proven without a doubt that even the most well-informed of us still make unhealthy choices when faced with an environment that is not supportive.
Should we then rely on policy instead? The fact that governments have unsuccessfully tried to introduce policy solutions to this issue has often been argued as ‘proof’ that this is not a domain where government can effectively generate positive results. A few years ago, for example, Singapore introduced a ‘Trim & Fit’ state-sponsored program. Under this program, children had their Body-Mass-Index scores tested regularly; all students with BMIs above official guidelines would be enrolled in compulsory extra exercise classes for at least one hour a week. Can you believe that they were also to be formally and informally humiliated for being overweight or obese?By March 2007 the Singapore government had put an end to this program, “…after parents complained that overweight children were being singled out and teased” (Washington Post).
But the truth is that if it was an issue of individual choice, we would simply never have found ourselves in the dire situation we are in. We need to fund programs at the federal and local government level that teach children how to cook; that changes the food-scape we expose our children to; and that provides incentives (both financial and social) for adults that provide an environment that encourages our children to be active, make good good choices, and to develop the habits that will give us back a generation with a longer life-span than hours.
The solution isn’t either policy or information or environment. It must include all three of them! Ask yourself when was the last time you made a real and sustainable change in your life; were you determined to make different choices? How about the environment you created around you: did you design it so that it would support yourself through this change in a healthy and positive way, in a relaxed and easy manner? And what about policy? Did you create new rules that were flexible enough to be bent, yet strong enough to provide guidance and direction?
The solution must come from the holy trinity of ourselves, our environment and our governments. Pick one, and do something about improving it. Which one is yours?
If you think I have been drinking too much of my own Kool-aid, please come tell us at my blog on crazycolombian.com/foodscape; we’d love to hear from you!