Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, writes an interesting e-newsletter about behavioral economics and the different choices people can make in their lives. It’s usually tied to personal finance, but today he sent a really interesting quote from Clotaire Rapaille about the reasons behind our country’s obesity problem:
“Years ago, Tufts University invited me to lecture during a symposium on obesity…
Lecturer after lecturer offered solutions for America’s obesity problem, all of which revolved around education. Americans would be thinner if only they knew about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, they told us. Slimming down the entire country was possible through an aggressive public awareness campaign…
When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t help beginning with an observation. “I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”
There were audible gasps in the auditorium when I said this, quite a few snickers, and five times as many sneers. Unsurprisingly, Tufts never invited me to lecture again.’”
Sethi’s promotion of this quote spawned quite a debate on his blog, but I thought I’d bring the debate over here. Do you agree with Clotaire? If education is not the solution, what is?
I think a large part of our obesity problem DOES lie in education, despite Clotaire’s point. However, I think we’re not necessarily educating people in the right way. We spend a lot of time telling people to eat less and move more – simple advice, but not always so easy to do. What we need to focus more attention on is teaching people the actual strategies that will help them, and we need to make sure that the strategies we encourage are small behavioral changes (i.e., ones that aren’t very difficult for people to implement) that will make a big difference.
I recently read Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a pretty quick read, but sheds a lot of insight into human behavior and what we need to do to actually get people to change (rather than just think about changing or make a halfhearted attempt). They provided a really great example of how they were able to reduce obesity in a small town: by providing just one point for people to remember. They encouraged everyone to switch to 1% milk, and extolled the benefits of just that one change. It was easy to do, it only required one real decision point (at the grocery store – once the milk is in your house, you’re going to drink it regardless of whether it’s whole milk or 1%), and therefore it didn’t require a ton of extra effort on the part of the participants. Because let’s face it, human beings are lazy by nature and want to minimize the amount of work they have to do. I think an education-based campaign with small tactical changes like this would work wonders, instead of just the generic “being obese is bad for you” and encouragement of behavior that people think is too hard/unattainable.
That said, I do agree that education isn’t the only answer. I think a large part of the problem is really about the recent acceptance of obesity. I understand that there are still some stigmas about being overweight – I’m not saying it’s easy to be obese. However, you have to admit it’s become much more acceptable in recent years, right down to the push for airlines to increase the size of their seats. For example, I hate that stupid statistic that says the average American woman is a size 14. “Average” doesn’t mean healthy, and while for some people a size 14 might be a healthy size, for many people it is not – and I think far too many people use being close to the “average” as an excuse not to work up to their full potential (with regards to size or anything else). Heck, I do this too – how often is it that we really push ourselves to do our best, instead of using others as a benchmark for “good enough”? That’s why I love marathoning – it’s just you pushing yourself to reach your own goals; no one else’s times matter.
We certainly have a long way to go before we can solve the current obesity crisis. What do you think the answer is?