Itacoatiara Can You Nudge Yourself Thin?

It’s that diet time of year. Being on a diet myself, I know what a lot of determination and focus it takes. Yet there is an idea around that this is an easy process. I suspect that the stimuli to eating are complex and I noticed this story about a new policy emerging from the Government + NHS to tackle the obesity crisis. Here is my perspective on it, I wonder what is yours? In the list below I point out some of the things you need to watch out for if you want your diet to work! “We have a great opportunity to see if pointing people in the right direction coupled with a gentle warning will help reduce obesity,” says the blurb that accompanies the press review. In an influential new report from the NHS Future Forum, GP’s and health professionals are advised to mention weight problems whenever they have a consultation with a patient who is obese

“Every healthcare professional should ‘make every contact count’; use every contact with an individual to maintain or improve their mental and physical health and wellbeing where possible, in particular targeting the four main lifestyle risk factors: diet, physical activity, alcohol and tobacco – whatever their speciality or the purpose of the contact.”

says the report.

This is a good example of Nudging, one of the early tools to influence us suggested by Behavioural Economics. It would be fantastic if this would reduce obesity!

I don’t think it will work, the roots of obesity are complex and multi-factorial – but above all are supported by the billions spent on food and desirability marketing campaigns that no government will dare to restrict, even though that route has proved so successful with smoking. A large part of my career has been devoted to optimising such campaigns!

Here are just a few of those roots, influences that your doctor’s gentle warning will have to overcome:

Sedentary Behaviour

People spend more time working (at desks) and watching TV than doing anything else. TV watching is not just associated with inaction, but with increased snacking and exposure to countless food advertisements – and programmes about delicious food. People in these programmes either win titles or the prize of celebrity endoresement.

Food Availability & Emotional Eating

Emotional eating refers to consumption of food for reasons other than physical hunger – anything from having a slice of a colleague’s birthday cake because you don’t want to be left out/appear rude, through to eating to ward off the blues. Eating forbidden foods can sometimes be a rebellion against deprivation or suppression of freedom.

When I was a kid we did not have easy access to food, and none to fast or processed foods. We had to find other ways to regulate our feelings. Nowadays food is everywhere. My TV has been groaning under the weight of food commercials, Christmas scenes showing well-laden tables and cookery programmes galore, from Jamie’s Christmas Dinner to the final of Masterchef.

Social Influences

My friend Mark Earls has pointed out that where obesity is prevalent, its rate of increase is enhanced: quite simply, the more fat people there are around, the more likely you are to get fatter. We copy those around us. As yet there are few really obese politicians, but in the current administration Eric Pickles is an exception to this rule…

The Creation of Discontent

Apart from the many reasonable causes of discontent (long working hours, low pay, inequality etc.) marketing efforts to convince us that we are not good enough are everywhere. By the 1960’s there were enough goods around to fill the needs of most citizens. That meant that to sell more you had to rely upon creating needs rather than just filling them. Much food and drink advertising is dedicated to prompting needs.

Psychological Disorders and the Medicines used to Treat them.

The medicines used for depression, anxiety and mood disorders are closely associated with weight gain amongst users. This is in addition to weight gain that may have triggered these disorders or been a side effect of them. The weight gains reported in these circumstances are very large indeed.

Genetic Influences

Studies suggest a high degree of genetic influence in obesity. It’s difficult to separate this from social influence – what effect does growing up in an obese household have on children? But genetics may be another factor.

The Smoking Example

We have been much more successful at giving up smoking. Co-ordinated efforts include the ban on TV advertising and on ‘celebrity’ endorsement’ campaigns, along with the nicotine replacement patches with support from the NHS and the ban on smoking in public places.

You can see the effects of these efforts below: