Habit, Environment & Exhortation

January 11, 2008

Obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are major health problems in most industrialized nations, and particularly in the United States. A great deal of time, effort, and money is poured in to programs to “educate” people about healthy eating and regular exercise in combating these problems.

This Web site hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture is built around the new “Food Pyramid” and is chock-full-o’ information designed to help you:

  • Make smart choices from every food group.
  • Find your balance between food and physical activity.
  • Get the most nutrition out of your calories.
  • Stay within your daily calorie needs.

Do these kinds of exhortations about what kinds of behaviors people should engage in to be healthy serve any purpose?

Fuck no! They are a total, unmitigated waste of time, effort, and resources. (Gee, could you see that coming?) This is because, as an inescapable consequence of biological reality, telling people how to behave has very little effect on how people actually behave. And this is especially true for evolutionarily ancient types of behavior like eating, drinking, and fucking.

The biological drive to perform these behaviors is implemented by parts of the brain that operate almost completely outside conscious awareness. Furthermore, those parts of the brain have the ability–for very good evolutionary reasons–to almost completely dominate the parts of the brain responsible for conscious decision-making and voluntary action.

Just like abstinence education–exhorting people not to fuck–has no effect on how much people fuck, nutritional and health education–exhorting people to eat healty foods, restrict caloric intake, and exercise regularly–has no effect on people’s dietary and exercise behaviors. However, it is not only the overwhelming power of innate biological drive that determines sexual and ingestive behavior; learned habits that arise out of interactions of each human being with the environment also have a very powerful influence.

People grossly underestimate the power of innate biological drive and habit in determining their actions, and grossly overestimate the power of “choice”. People also grossly underestimate the power of their environment in reinforcing (or extinguishing) habits, and grossly overestimate the power of “will”.

If you want people to exercise and eat healthily, you have to create an environment that makes it easy to develop the habit of exercise and healthy eating. The main reason that poor people have a much greater incidence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is that they live in environments that make it extremely difficult to develop healthy habits, and reinforce unhealthy habits. It has nothing to do with them being “lazy” or “lacking willpower”, and everything to do with the destructive environment they live in.

What does this entail as a practical matter? Stop creating massive economic incentives–like the Farm Bill–that encourage production and sale of fuckloads of high-fructose corn syrup in the form of processed prepared foods and beverages instead of healthy unprocessed foods. Stop creating massive economic incentives–like the Interstate highway system–that encourage use of automobiles at the expense of walking or cycling.

Instead of subsidizing the high-fructose corn syrup industry, start subsidizing healthy grains, fruits and vegetables, and proper humane animal husbandry for production of healthy meats. Instead of subsidizing automobile travel, start subsidizing infrastructural projects that encourage walking and bicycling.

If we have the political will as a nation to oust these fucking craven scum who are beholden to corporate interests that thrive under the current system of powerful economic incentives, we can alter our environment in ways that will inexorably lead to much healthier eating and dramatic increases in exercise. Continuing with the current system of incentives is gonna fucking kill us all.


6 Responses to “Habit, Environment & Exhortation”

  1. Gentlewoman Says:

    Conga rats on yer new blog. 🙂

    Isn’t the whole ‘food pyramid’ crap dictated to the Feds by their masters in the agribusinesses? I thought I read somewhere that the meat people were responsible for the ridiculous number of servings per day of animal protein that made the old food pyramid so pernicious.

    Also: I have never met anyone who drinks eight glasses of water a day, and I know people who drink a LOT of water.

  2. I want to point out that having your own bog lets you say whatever the fuck you want, however the fuck you want , whenever you fucking want to.
    Get my fucking drift?
    I fucking thought so.
    YOU are the manners police in this state baby,No one can tell ya different.
    Just a little perk that I enjoy immensely at home.

  3. PhysioProf Says:

    Fuckin’ A! It’s the Jersey in me!

  4. Blue Gal Says:

    you need more fuck in this blog. And less food pyramid. That said, it takes a year to find your voice. I speak from painful experience. Your earlier post wins a don’t sugarcoat it award, which will incestualize (is that a word? who the fuck cares?) your blog with my readers. That plus Drifty’s brilliant readers is a pretty good start, imho.

  5. WereBear Says:

    A massive book came out recently, Gary Taubes Good Calories, Bad Calories.

    In it, this award winning science writer summed up 100 years of clear eyed research with one inescapable conclusion: the less carbohydrates we eat, the slimmer and healthier we are.

    I have been living this way for 4 1/2 years. I’ve lost weight, my blood pressure has gone down, my blood panels look great.

    Maybe I’m a mutant.

    Maybe he’s right.

    What this means, for a nation with so many driven near poverty and forced to subsist on cheap, processed carbohydrates, is horrifying.

    The attacks on his book will prove to be short-sighted and disastrously wrong.

    And there we are.

  6. Melski Says:

    I hate the food pyramid. It’s too complex for most people to understand. It would be so much easier to just say, “exercise more, eat less fats, eat more fruits, vegetables and grains.” But that’s not a sexy message.

    I agree that part of the problem is that there are some, ahem, conflicts of interest when the guvmint is setting up guidelines like this, as there is the concern not to piss off one’s business constituents/major donors.

    And to further complicate matters, as WereBear mentions, there are lots of places in this country (urban and rural) where fresh produce is limited, hard to find, or very expensive if you can get it. So even if you do want to be responsible, it’s difficult if not impossible.

    Lastly there is the issue that most people don’t want to be told how to eat or what to do with their lives, or are confused by the way the media often tout the results of (often, premiminary) clinical studies. There is a lot of confusion: “One week we’re told we should eat as much (?) as we want, and the next week we’re told it is bad for you. WTF? I’m gonna eat/drink whatever I want.”

    It’s very frustrating, actually. Can you blame people for reverting back to their primal instincts? It’s a lot easier than doing the research…

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