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A Lack of Self-Control?

Posted Sep 30 2009 10:12pm

by Amir Goren

Sure, one of the causes of obesity is a lack of self-control… and willpower, personal responsibility, or what have you. Sure, individuals are capable of saying “no” to unhealthful food. They can put down their cheap, sugar-laden sodas and pick up cheaper water instead. Seems like common sense, right? Well, the toxic food environment is still to blame. Why? Because it pushes self-control and long-term planning beyond what the average mind can handle.

People may realize that the food industry has helped create a toxic food environment by marketing ever more—and cheaper—unhealthful food products over the past few decades. But even as health-conscious consumers face an increasingly uphill battle, most Americans still believe that it is entirely up to individuals to exercise restraint and good judgment. If you find yourself surrounded by twice as many candy bars, just say “no” twice as often and you’ll be fine.

Unfortunately, due to the limitations of our individualistic minds, this task is not so simple. Saying “no” to temptation on one occasion makes us much more likely to indulge in unhealthy behavior subsequently, in part because the mental exercise depletes our brains of glucose (see research on self-regulation; eating & smoking; glucose & resisting temptation ). Choose the apple over the cookie for lunch and you’re more likely to order a latte during your coffee break.

If this sounds unconvincing, try putting yourself in the shoes of someone who works at two low-paying jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and living in a poor neighborhood with a plethora of fast food restaurants, snack food-laden convenience stores, and no supermarkets. This person is already under cognitive overload from the various decisions and compromises that he or she needs to make to survive, and yet we expect this same person to make informed and healthy choices at the end of the day when faced with a wall of 2-liter soda bottles to bring home at 99¢ apiece.

As if self-control limitations weren’t enough of an obstacle, people also face ever-increasing difficulties in choosing long-term health over short-term indulgence. The poorly defined, unappreciated, and far-off benefits of long-term outcomes such as good health have to be weighed constantly against the immediate, concrete, and salient rewards of short-term behaviors such as eating sugary, fatty foods.  True, each of us is responsible for deciding whether to sacrifice instant gratification (e.g., forgoing a huge slice of cheesecake) in order to benefit from good health and longevity in the long-run, but how many such decisions must we confront? In the past, there were fewer tradeoffs to make, because there were fewer opportunities to indulge. Unhealthful foods were less available, were priced more as luxuries than as commonplace items, and were offered in smaller portions. In today’s food environment, the short-term rewards have exploded in number, and these are pitted against the same few long-term benefits. So now, instead of deciding once a day whether I can afford to eat a bar of chocolate, I have to make this decision many times over. Online, at the vending machine, at the grocery store, and on the street, it is up to me to ignore the ads for fast food, the cookies and chips, the bottles of soda, and the smell of fried chicken and hamburgers. In the past, my one successful daily attempt at avoiding temptation may have sufficed in preserving my state of health. In today’s toxic food environment, several rounds of successful resistance may be inadequate in compensating for the long-term costs (e.g., diabetes, heart disease) of the few times we give in to temptation.

Is it fair of us to place the entire burden of healthy decision-making on the shoulders of the individual consumer, even as the food industry makes our environment increasingly unhealthy? Is it fair of us to expect individuals (a) to exercise increasingly monumental and depleting efforts at self-control and (b) to make ever more decisions that place short-term rewards at odds with long-term benefits?

When the environment is at fault, we need to clean it up.

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