March 29, 2011

Is education the solution?

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?


13 thoughts on “Is education the solution?”

  1. Laura I love this post, makes pefect sense,although I don’t have an answer except that society is too accepting and we tend to sometimes want an excuse for everything. Life is a beech at times but wee have to dig deep to schieve our goals, wether society wants us to or not.

  2. I don’t think the problem is ignorance. At least, not for the vast majority of people. The problem is in our grocery stores (how much space is taken up by fresh fruit and veggies versus space taken up by frozen-food, pre-prepared, processed, canned, fake “food”) and in the very high cost-per-calorie of healthy food. You can get a Big Mac (at say 300 calories) for 99 cents, but an equivalent number of calories from a pile of vegetables could run upwards of $5 to $10. Americans just aren’t used to spending a lot of money on food. Poor people, and folks who have no time to cook, are hit worst. It’s not about education, or will-power. It’s about basic lack of availability. In towns where the nearest grocery store is a 20 minute bus ride away, but the nearest convenience store is just down the block, (typical of poverty-stricken neighborhoods), the community will suffer. The government would LOVE to throw money at some “awareness raising” programs rather than tackle the infinitely more complex real solution which is that we need more local farms, more food-stamp programs that can only be redeemed on fruits and vegetables, and a complete breakdown of the monolithic food companies that churn out cheaper and cheaper stuff that is less and less like food.

  3. I think it’s technology. It’s brought us inside more and outside far less. I’ve read some good articles out of Harvard regarding how we opt to eat out bc its quicker and readily available, we no longer walk places bc the car is quicker and easier, no longer ride our bikes or play tag bc computer games are more fun, and work has moved inside rather than outside. I live technology, but can also see the point.

  4. It starts with education. Just look at other national problems like smoking and human decimation of the environment. It took over forty years from the first anti-smoking campaigns to get any sort of legislation passed that extolled the harm of nicotine smoke. Same with environmental issues. It took years for anyone to start paying attention and now everything is “green” (though some of it isn’t quite as helpful to the environment as we think). Unfortunately, as there are too many chemical modifications to our food supply to ever legislate against them all, but teaching good eating habits and making smart food choices to people at a young age certainly helps. The only problem is that there are so many diverse opinions on what actually is healthy, that people can often feel overwhelmed with all the information and find it hard to sort out. I know I do, and I often change my diet more than once a month, adding and eliminating certain foods. I bet you do too sometimes, right Laura?

  5. Dawn, I completely agree that people want an excuse. Myself included sometimes! It is so much easier to find a reason for our failure instead of doing everything possible to avoid failure in the first place.

    Pentalith, I definitely think making healthy foods more accessible is a great start. Have you seen the show from last year, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? It was REALLY wonderful to see him teaching people how to make things healthier without necessarily spending more money. That said, I also think that people need to put more of a priority on what they put into their body, instead of selecting a Big Mac. While you’re right that higher calorie things are typically cheaper, I don’t think people are buying them and then eating the appropriate number of calories just at a lower cost. (For example, a bag of chips might be $2 and contain 1500 calories, but people aren’t buying the bag of chips and then using that as their only sustenance for the day).

    Robin, YES to technology being problematic… but I also don’t think any of us want to go back to the days before we had it 🙂

    Lauren, you are right that there is still no perfect way to eat, and that I change my diet frequently! Still trying to hit on the right solution.

  6. Great post! Lots of food for thought! (pun intended.)

    I think in cases of extreme obesity, those people are dealing with a food addiction, just as severe as alcoholism or smoking. They know they should stop eating, and yet they can’t. That is something that will not be fixed with education alone. Counseling and–what you said Laura–teaching strategies and methods to control their eating is what helps them. Shows like the Biggest Loser create a false impression that those people can drop weight safely and rapidly, and that’s the exception rather than the rule.

    But, for people who are close to “average” but still overweight, losing weight requires commitment and effort. You’re right, currently the “average” is an overweight person. Americans are inherently lazy, do not want to put forth the effort and would like a quick fix to weight loss. Everyone knows that you should eat less and move more. I think problems arise when we’re given too much information about food. For instance, Bob from the Biggest Loser is promoting really sugary Quaker Oat Breakfast Bars. People will buy them without reading the label or realizing how many sugars they have because Bob says their good for you. They’re better than a McGriddle for sure, but probably not the BEST option. Similarly, some diet foods have more fat and sodium or less protein than just a plain club sandwich or something you could easily make fresh at home. It’s that kind of confusion that causes people to make poor (albeit well-intended) eating choices.

  7. I think that weight is a direct relation to two things: lifestyle and the care one has of their own well-being. A lot of people have a disconnect between eating a block of cheese and realizing “my body is myself and I am raising my cholesterol with this action.” Whereas they see it as a treat, it’s really treating their body without respect. Granted, I have done the same thing… HOWEVER, lifestyle plays a huge role. Avoiding soda, choosing vegetables as a snack, eating a piece of fruit with breakfast instead of loading up on pastries. Once it’s habit, you can notice a real change over time. It’s a really interesting concept.

  8. We live in a toxic environment–one that takes significantly more effort to eat healthy and move our bodies than to eat junk and sit around.

    The profit motive has brought us manufactured ‘food’ that encourages more consumption through addictive behavior(i.e. repeat customers). The profit motive also encourages the creation of all kinds of strange ingredients, just because they’re cheaper (HFCS anyone?) There is much less profit in providing actual food like fruits and vegetables, and much less can be done to decrease their cost. What fruit and veg does make it to store shelves is inferior-tasting, because it’s been bred primarily for appearance and picked prematurely to survive long trips from farm to supermarket.

    Many of us live in communities that are not conducive to walking/running/cycling. The car is the pre-eminent consideration when land is developed, so bike lanes, sidewalks, pedestrian overcrosses, and walking trails that actually go somewhere are usually an afterthought or a luxury.

    So, yeah, it’s way more than education.

  9. Thank you for the post – very thought provoking. As a former morbidly obese person who is now much more healthy, I have to vehemently disagree with the notion that it has become acceptable to our society. As an obese girl, I was treated much differently than I am today – not in a good way. From dating to current paychecks and future promotional opportunities, how much you weigh matters. I think what we do accept (and maybe this is what you said and I missed it), as a society we accept it as just part of our society’s make-up. We seem OK that more and more children are growing up obese and overweight. Like many of the folks who left comments, I believe education is part of it but so much more is self-worth. Until the lightbulb turns on that you are worthy of good health and having a body that can take you places, then all the facts and figures and tools don’t matter. They didn’t for me until I figured out I was worth it. Thanks again for the post. While I have little interest in economics, I might need to start reading his blog! When do we get to read about Part II of your last marathon?

  10. I think that dealing with Obesity would be a complex flow chart of sorts, first get people to care, and if they don’t care show them why they should care, then go from there. Hopefully sooner than later we add more penalties in the way of higher health insurance premiums for people in a company that do not live healthily, and thus are very expensive for the healthcare system. Don’t not give people healthcare but give them a choice to live healthier and get cheaper health insurance, they will be overall better employees!! This is gradually taking hold but not mainstream just yet.

    Another big part is parents, almost 100% of the time you see kids in the clinic and if they are obese then their parents are too, skinny parents have skinny kids due to lifestyle choices. It would be great to showcase lifestyle behavior of fit vs obese families to compare and show people that it is not their genetics but how they LIVE that effect the weight on the scale.

    Living in an obese country makes me sad because we know better. Great topic Laura!

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