Eating junk, getting sick: a look on new interventions to solve the issue

Since the 1950s, modern advances in agriculture have played a pivotal role in delivering food on a large scale, at accessible prices. However, along with the industrialisation of the food chain, the incidence of chronic disease has risen steadily. Global research has demonstrated the connection between a diet based on products containing processed meat, wheat, dairy, high levels of sugars, fat and oil, and the incidence of chronic degenerative diseases. In the long run, these products cause an inflammatory reaction in the organism, leading to several dysfunctions of the organs. The negative impact of these foodstuffs derive from their high calorie content, the high glycemic index, the effects on metabolism, and the growth in the portions favoured by the lower price of food. The fundamental problem lays in an overall change of lifestyle: we consume more calories, we have imbalanced diets, we are more sedentary and have less time for exercise.

Image from the “Elige Vivir Sano” campaign of the Chilean Government (Lowe Porta agency).

Chronic diseases (i.e. cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, cancer) represent today the major factor of risk for human health, other than being a huge socio-economical burden for the health sistem, hence the entire collectivity. The last issue of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition “Eating Planet” portrays a worrying picture. For instance, 392 millions of people in the world have diabetes. According to the WHO, in the next twenty years it is expected a 70% rise in the diagnosis of cancer. In the US only, in 2012, the costs of healthcare peaked to $ 87,5 millions. In the past fifty years, healthcare has been increasingly turning to a logic of prevention, recognising the need of this type of intervention, along with the actions to cure already sick patients.

To contrast this planetary phenomenon, a solid alliance among institutions must be fostered, and strategies implemented that involve all the potential actors, such as regulating the marketing of junk food, developing more initiatives at the local level that promote an active lifestyle, and investing in children education to prevent the establishment of insalubrious habits. Insights from different streams of research should also be valued, from eating psychology, behavioural economics, and cognitive neuroscience. Research in these fields has done tremendous improvements in the understanding of human behaviour in relation to food: from findings about the brain systems in charge, to perception and decision-making processes, to the formation of habits.

In 2013, the Chilean government launched a brilliant campaign named “Elige vivir sano“. In this context, I would like to set aside for a moment the discussion about the effectiveness of this laudable intervention, to point out instead the inherent meaning embedded in the slogan “Exercise your willpower“. This claim captures a view of humans as rational agents that by resisting temptation, are able overcome overweight and obesity. This conception is naive and a simplification of human behaviour. The rational reasoning model is the product of a historical period in which human thinking was assumed to be logical, and based on mathematical processes. In reality, in the past decades, research has repeatedly shown the presence of patterns of automaticity in everyday-life functioning. The cerebral system has a strong adaptive function, and many processes and behaviours can function automatically, which means more efficiently. At the same time, this more intuitive decision-making mode, can lead to several mistakes and errors in judgement. Because of several factors (e.g. habits, cognitive limitations, the phenomenon of ego-depletion, heuristics, contextual cues) many operations often occur without a conscious intent from the person. Such as indulging in delicious, rewarding high-calorie food, at the end of a long, exhausting, working day.

In order to solve the issues related to poor nutrition, we need to move beyond traditional strategies by focusing on interventions that are informed by these findings about the nature of human psychology. Dietary behaviours are often the product of automatic responses to environmental food cues, leading to impulse eating, poor dietary choices, and higher calorie consumption. In an everyday-life context, we can lack the capacity to consistently ignore or resist food temptations. The discipline of choice architecture, informed by findings in behavioural economics and cognitive psychology, can be particularly useful for the regulation of the contextual influences. Nudging people in the right direction can help them avoid the side-effects of heuristic reasoning, and be a powerful vehicle for food-related issues such as obesity control.