Frogs, famously (and apocryphally), will sit in an uncovered pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil, waiting there oblivious to their predicament until they die, instead of simply jumping out, which they could do at any time. This story has been used instructively in many contexts across many years to highlight the difficulty that we can have in recognizing the dangerous implications of slow change – from the menace of the Soviet Union to Global Warming.
It is tempting to use the same analogy to describe the gradual rise of obesity in America – in this case, the “pot” in which we float is our industrial food system that has over time created a nutritional environment that is systematically fattening us to death. The CDC has given us the perfect visual representation of how obesity levels have indeed been raised to the “boiling point” (I’ve shown the data progression below in 5 year increments from 1985 through 2010).
I’d argue, however, that it is the differences between the situation of the boiling frogs and the overweight American population (and not the similarities) that are most instructive as to the nature of our problem, perhaps even pointing toward solution.
Knowing is not the same as Doing
To start and as was just pointed out in The Atlantic, recent studies indicate that Americans do indeed seem to recognize the risks of obesity (You’re Fat and You Know It: Why Government Anti-obesity Efforts Fail). This research suggests that the boiling frog analogy may not hold up as to our level of awareness of the risks of our increasing weight and its impact on life expectancy. Whether this recognition has always been present as simple common sense, is due to our own personal observations as obesity rates and related disease prevalence have grown over time, or is due to the success of government messaging campaigns, the problem is that this awareness has not yet translated into an arresting or reversal of the obesity trends.
This begs a couple of questions – first, if people are not taking action to reduce their own health risks, why? And if they are taking action, why aren’t these actions having measurable impact at the population level? Let me take on the first of these questions here.
Behavioral Economics and Our Incentives to Eat Unhealthily
As to the issue of inaction, I’d point to an important difference in our circumstances from that of our friends the boiling frogs. In our case, we do not necessarily suffer from ignorance or apathy. However, the long term incentive to “get out” of our boiling pot (and eventually save or extend our lives) is actually offset by substantial SHORT TERM INCENTIVES TO STAY IN THE BOILING POT AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. Specifically, we benefit in the short term from eating inexpensively and poorly by:
1) Externalizing or Shifting Costs – We reduce our short term food expenditures by consuming cheaper, less healthy foods, and at the same time shift the costs of this choice to the community at large, which pays for our poor eating decisions in the form of subsidies for health care expenditures through insurance risk pools. This is a “moral hazard” created by our inability (for now) to allocate the discrete costs of obesity or unhealthy eating habits to individuals who create those costs.
2) Taking Advantage of Subsidies – An unintended consequence of government agricultural subsidies, in conjunction with the misguided USDA food pyramid, has been the abundance of certain types of calories (for example, from High Fructose Corn Syrup or grains) that appear to play a distinct role in obesity. The lower cost of subsidized crops means cheaper food prices for products that make use of those crops – and a relative price advantage over non-subsidized calories that may be healthier. This of course translates directly into increased sales of unhealthy products that use subsidized crops.
3) Avoiding the Costs of Cooking/Enjoying the Benefits of Not Cooking – When the cost of eating packaged food (however unhealthy) is lower than the “cost” of your own hourly labor and ingredients to cook a comparable meal, it is more likely that only those who get substantial personal utility or enjoyment from cooking will select this option in the short term. Further, the reality of modern American life is that TIME, NOT CALORIES, is the scare resource. So, more than just looking at packaged food as a pure substitute for labor and ingredients, many will assign a “premium” to their free time (well beyond their hourly pay rate), in turn raising the bar for the return or cost savings required for someone to invest time in cooking for themselves, as avoiding cooking conserves or expands the amount of available free time.
4) Receiving Short Term Biological Rewards – Our early ancestors evolved in an environment of relative scarcity, where stores of fat, carbohydrates and sodium could be difficult to find. As such, our bodies are wired to eat these nutrients when available – with internal biological reward systems that are very powerful. Even though our food environment has changed completely, our bodies have not. So when faced with manufactured foods that are “engineered” to appeal to this primitive drive – and to taste better than our own home-cooked meals – the biological reward system can overwhelm calculation of short-term benefit versus long-term risks.
5) Avoiding the Social Costs/Penalties of Obesity – With the prevalence of obesity in the U.S., there are now large cohorts where obesity is either the norm or far less unusual, a situation that tends to de-stigmatize the condition and reduce the likelihood of incurring social costs that might otherwise be a factor in dietary decisions where one in fact has the knowledge to make better decisions. Related, it is now socially unacceptable or politically incorrect to take what might be perceived as a critical posture toward obesity, particularly as it becomes viewed as a spreading disease that might be out of our personal control (see related Blog Post: Is Obesity Really an Epidemic?). There is even a civil rights organization for the obese — the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) – that agressively attacked the typically marketing-savvy Disney for its apparently well-meaning (but admittedly clueless) Habit Heroes theme park exhibit, now shuttered (Disney Closes Controversial Fat-Fighting Exhibit). Certainly “shame” is not a strategy for weight loss, however the corollary to this entire situation is that, as de facto norms have changed with the population, the positive benefits of being around large groups of people with healthy habits (e.g., mirroring those habits) are simply less widely available.
Rather than a pot of boiling water, one might think of our current nutritional environment as more akin to QUICKSAND – actively pulling us down, such that we cannot just casually “jump out”, but instead need an intelligent plan (and likely some assistance or instruction) to escape. So, until such time that individuals realize very concrete direct costs (as measured in actual dollars, social currency and quality of life) that exceed the avoided costs and perceived benefits of unhealthy eating, it may actually continue to seem RATIONAL for many NOT TO ACT, waiting as long as possible to expend the required effort to battle the food system that holds them captive.
As to the question of what happens when people do make the effort to reduce their weight and change their eating habits (and typically fail), that is a large topic to which I’ll return in later posts.
Paul Amoruso, CEO