Rationality Goes out the Window When it Comes to Food

Some topics are challenging to approach from a rational perspective. Especially experiential topics: food, love, and music, for example. Although rationality has a place in all three, only a vulcan would put the science before the sensual.

Since the 1980s, dietary guidelines have shown that eating fruits, vegetables, & whole grains and avoiding refined sugars & saturated fats can help us steer clear of chronic disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated & published every five years. Almost everything has a nutrition label on it. We have more information about what we should eat and what we are eating than we’ve ever had before. And yet, all of this information has failed to have a positive impact on our eating habits. According to the CDC, only 26.3% of people eat vegetables three times per day and 32.5% eat fruit twice a day, a slight decrease from a decade ago. Rationality just isn’t a priority when it comes to food.

If we want to be healthy, and have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, why aren’t we?

It’s easy to dismiss this behavior as irrational or as a lack of willpower over tasty food & cultural challenges such as:

  • Dual income families & long hours on the job leave less time for planning meals and cooking fresh food
  • The increasing availability of low quality, easily prepared food impacts our choices at the grocery
  • Th eating habits of the family unit when only one member wants to diet, especially if that person is the family cook.
  • The abundance of conflicting diet & nutrition information can be confusing & overwhelming

These are all valid issues, but they may not tell the whole story.

Stacey Finkelstein from the University of Chicago did a study on the psychological components of food choice that uncovered some thought provoking results. In one case, she distributed identical protein bars, but told some subjects the bars were “healthy” and others that they were “tasty”. The subjects with the “healthy” bars reported less satisfaction.

In another case, she let half the subjects choose whether or not to eat the bar, and told the other half it was their job. The ones who weren’t given a choice reported less satisfaction.

So, if this study is correct, even controlling for taste, we don’t respond favorably to being told what to eat, and we don’t like eating anything we perceive as healthy – even if it tastes good! That doesn’t bode well for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

It may seem irrational that one would want to be healthy, have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, and still choose not to, but ultimately choices are logical. There’s a payoff – time savings, laziness, pleasure, perception – that is just more important that achieving health. And ultimately, what’s most important to you is your choice to make.

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  1. Of course, the fact that many people simply dislike the taste of some vegetables might be a big part of this discussion.

    Almost on a gender basis, in fact.

    And no, it is not for lack of trying.

  2. I am on WeightWatchers, and since they changed their points system to make fresh fruits and most vegetables zero point foods (that is, they do not count against your daily allotment of food) I have been eating an increased amount of fresh fruit and both fresh and frozen vegetables (seriously, quite a bit). Maybe they made a good change.

  3. I think it also has to do with the fact that healthy food is often constructed as not as tasty as unhealthy food. Also, I think people tend to see healthy and non-healthy food, with nothing in between – which really isn’t the case.

    And there is the issue of healthy food being tied to dieting and diet foods, which are usually less tasty and appealing versions the food people typically eat.

    Also, growing up I remember most vegetables being cooked to the point of mushiness and tastelessness, making my think that I disliked many vegetables. However, when I became an adult and started cooking for myself I realized that there are many ways to prepare veggies and other healthy foods that taste delicious. I am sure I am not the only one with the experience of growing up with limited options for good tasting healthy food. I am guessing that that experience translates for some people into eating more unhealthy food that they already know tastes good instead of exploring how to make foods they think of as yucky taste good.

  4. So, if this study is correct, even controlling for taste, we don’t respond favorably to being told what to eat, and we don’t like eating anything we perceive as healthy – even if it tastes good!

    While I agree with this it only goes to a certain point, for example, it wasn’t too difficult to get people to eat all the steak and cheese they could when they were told it was good for them (low-carb diets).
    And I have seen people choke down serving after serving of plain, unseasoned brown rice (and swear they like it) to “detoxify”, we are capable of convincing ourselves of anything if we really want to.

  5. I’m pretty bad when it comes to food. I try to stay in shape with regular exercise, but I do the lazy thing for meals way too often.

    Stacey, maybe you could start the Skepchick Get Healthy Challenge. Not so much about losing weight, but about eating more healthy food.

  6. Between my partner & I, we lost about 140lbs. We didn’t diet per se. We made a lifestyle change, which we have now maintained for 3 years. The secret? It’s not really a secret. We increased vegetables, decreased ready-made crap. We endeavour to make *tasty* meals rather than bland crap, so that what we are eating is something we actually WANT to eat. The control is through portion control rather than increasing the banality of the flavour.

  7. Love to cook, I’m a really healthy eater, like veggies and salad, not a snacker and rarely eat junk or fast foods. Aren’t I just wonderful; however I really enjoy eating what I cook and have always been challenged when it comes to seconds, portion control and, and, and…, sure I’ll have one more glass of wine.

    I’d enjoy seeing some kind of rational health support component here at Skepchick; it seems like it would be a good use of the community and I could always use the encouragement to exercise more and cut a calorie or two hundred. And Elyse has been a real encouragement seeing how well she’s done with her exercise, running and ass kicking commitment. That chick rocks!

    @BeardofPants: Way to go!

  8. Since I’ve started my little get healthy/weight loss challenge with JT Eberhard, I’ve been eating a lot better. I’m much more conscious of how many calories I’m stuffing into my face, and what kind of calories those are. But I still have such a hard time getting enough fruits and vegetables. I feel accomplished if I can eat one piece of fruit and one serving of vegetables a day. I don’t even dislike them – I guess I just don’t know how to incorporate them more. Can I blame my parents for literally only cooking corn and potatoes as our vegetables for 18 years?

    So, what does that mean when someone who’s actively trying to eat healthier is still failing? Blah.

  9. I have learned that a good way to decrease calorie intake is to use smaller plates/bowls/glasses.

    I lost ~80# by retiring and getting away from all the stress of work.

  10. @Jennifurret

    One of my favorite ways to incorporate more vegetables is quite simple.

    Take a pound of pasta and cook it until it is not quite al dente (it will cook more later) then rinse it in cold water to stop the cooking drain it and set it aside. Take any vegetables you would like to have with your pasta and cut them into bite sized pieces, now with a little bit of olive oil in a pan add the hardest veggies first, sauté them for a little while the add the softer veggies and the pasta and continue to sauté until all is cooked through (not very long actually) add any veggies that need no cooking, toss and set aside for a couple of minutes, add any toppings (cheese, nuts, sauce, etc.) that you would like a voila. Since all of this can be done beforehand (the pasta will stay for about a week in an airtight bowl) it only takes about 10 minutes to prepare and since you cook only the amount you want portion control is easier too.

    The toppings can also make quick salads, or tacos, or soups too.

  11. I agree with some of the others here. I actually like the taste of vegetables, but I find it hard to constantly incorporate them. I started this year piling veggies onto sandwiches (instead of just meat and cheese). Also, choosing vegetarian options at restaurants helps.

    I would be up for a “Rational Choice Lifestyle Change” in my eating habits. Could use a catchier name though.

  12. @khan: There was a show on the BBC the other day looking at some of the ways of losing weight that actually have some science behind them and using smaller plates is actually one of them.

    I need to lose a shit load of weight (>100 pounds) and in previous attempts to lose weight have often found that, as the title of this post says, that my rationality goes out of the window. I convince myself that some things don’t count when I eat them. This attempt will, hopefully, be different.

  13. @khan: I often wonder how much impact my work stress has on my weight because I know that I use eating and drinking as a stress reducer when I get home from work. Getting on the treadmill and having a glass of water never seems very appealing after a long shit day.

  14. I am on a special diet. No fruits, veggies, whole grains, anything with seeds (bread, crackers, cereals, granola), no beans, peas, corn, mushrooms. olives, vegetable soup, nuts, brown rice or juice with pulp. Basically, no fiber. I am allowed dairy (but I’m lactose intolerant), eggs, meat, white rice, tofu, pasta (no tomato sauce, no whole wheat), rice crispies, corn flakes and white bread. I’ve been on this diet for about 30 hours now, and already have severe fruit and veggie cravings. (Just one piece of broccoli, please! That shouldn’t count!)

    In case you’re wondering, I’m scheduled for a colonoscopy on Thursday.

    On the plus side, I am allowed chocolate, beer and wine. Can’t wait for tonight’s SitP!

  15. @khan: @James Fox: Work stress definitely has an effect on me – my old job was very stressful and I would self-medicate with sugar. Sugar fixes everything!

    @Sam Ogden: @James Fox: @antoinettemarie: Hmmmm…you all have me thinking. I will have to give this some serious consideration. Health, weight &/or fat loss, muscle-building is such an individual thing – different approaches work for different people. Maybe we can cover the major approaches & then do some sort of interactive experiment of the effectiveness of each with volunteers, metrics, & feedback?

  16. @Andrew
    I lost 140 lbs by removing sugar and adding lots of almonds to my diet as snacks. I am just trying to get rid of another 20 lbs now, hence the WW.

  17. It might be helpful and informative if some of this kind of research looked more closely at household income and its relationship to eating healthier foods.

    I don’t know about where some of you folks live, but where I live things like quality fresh tomatoes are usually about 4 to 5 dollars a pound, mangoes 3 to 4 dollars each (apples are cheap at about 1 to 2 dollars per pound, and iceberg lettuce, an empty food, is also pretty cheap).

    People on fixed incomes, welfare recipients, and so on, simply cannot afford that kind of expensive food. A one K pack of pasta, and a discount jar of sauce costs about 4 dollars and provides up to approximately four meals, or an eight pack of mini-raviolies on sale at 7 dollars and a cheap loaf of bread at one dollar can provide 8 meals.

  18. I am also on WW. Lost 45 lbs so far. Lots more to go.
    Not the first time. Honestly, most likely will not be the last.
    Religion may be the opiate of most people, a combination of fat and sugar does it for others like me.
    I figure it this way, some people subconsciously balance their calorie intake with their exercise expenditure. Whether that’s genetic or training or some combination of both.
    I don’t.
    I have to write down everything I eat, every exercise I do, and maintain conscious control over it, or I over-eat and under-do.
    Count me in on the rational health thingy. I’ll take all the help I can get.

  19. As a professional musicologist I’d like to argue in favour of the Vulcan approach to music :)

    As for fruits and vegetables, I found that during the period I lived in Italy (about ten months) the quality of the produce was so much higher than I was used to that I found myself constantly eating it. Some of my best meals were composed entirely of perfectly ripe fruit, a bit of cheese, and a few slices of prosciutto crudo.

    I also lost about 25 pounds in the first few months without really trying…indeed I ate like a maniac and didn’t get much more physical activity than I am used to. An Italian friend of mine found the reverse to be true for her when she spent an equivalent amount of time in the US. Both of us rather quickly returned to our previous weights upon returning to our respective countries.

    Anecdotes are not data, surely, but the experience has led me to believe two things:

    1) People will eat more vegetables and especially more fruits if they are reliably ripe and delicious. The global nature of produce supply and the resultant need to pick things long before they are ripe means I am often thoroughly disappointed by produce even when it should be fresh and in season. I’m then less enthused about eating it and far less likely to buy more.

    2) Considering my cooking habits and portion sizes do not vary much by location (excepting the phenomenon of increased fruit intake), I am forced to wonder if there is not something else going on with the food supply that contributes to such rapid weight gain and loss (both my friend and I experienced quite rapid shifts in weight upon moving). I’m wary of many of the unscientific claims about HFCS, but it is one of the major differences between Europe and North America (not that I even eat that much processed food to begin with).

    Anyone else have similar experiences?

  20. I don’t eat enough fruit and veg:
    – because I rarely buy any
    – because when I buy some they go bad
    – because I don’t eat them fast enough

    And I’m not convinced my diet is bad anyway*, because even the good science on diet has contradictory interpretations.

    *I don’t survive on soft drinks and twinkies, so I’m not completely irrational here.

  21. I just downloaded an app for my phone that tracks weight loss, nutrition info, exercise, etc. For years I have said, “I’m going to eat healthy and exercise more!” but I lose track.

    The first week, I thought I would just put in what I normally eat to see where I stood. The program gives me calorie, fat, protein, and carbohydrate goals based on my target weight loss of about a pound per week. After lunch on the first day, I was still way low on calories, protein, and carbohydrates, but I had already reached the lower end of the fat limit for the day. I decided perhaps mayonnaise, half and half, and butter might need to be moderated more, and that I should get more protein into my diet.

    I agree with delictuscoeli. When fresh fruits and veggies are not consistently ripe and flavorful (tomatoes should not taste like water), it makes me less likely to buy fresh produce. This is especially true since I’m low-income. Fresh produce is more expensive, is not consistent, and doesn’t keep for long periods. Even though I’m vegetarian, I often go to processed foods or snack on chips. It’s cheaper and yummy.

    And horrible for me, I know. The sodium in some things, alone, is enough to scare me.

    By finding a way to add up nutritional information easily, I’ve been encouraged to actually pay attention to what I eat.

    Good luck to anyone else who is overweight and trying to fix it. It’s never easy. Emotional responses to food are very hard to fight.

  22. Oh! The Skepchicks are getting gravatar makeovers! Maybe I should consider a change. I’ve never changed mine.
    Anyhow, I’ve been eating more and more healthily since the time my wife and I began dating. She can’t have lots of greasy stuff and eats pretty healthy, so I’ve sort of regressed to her mean. We also just splurged on a Wii for xmas and got Wii fit plus and we’ve been doing pretty well on it so far.
    Still need to quit smoking though. That’s a biggie as heart disease runs in my family.

  23. Hi all, I don’t comment much but I’m a long time lurker. This has been a subject of interest for me for some time. Location I’ve found has played a huge part in how healthy I eat simply based on what is available on a livable wage. When I was in college in northern Minnesota finding a vegetarian meal that wasn’t deep-fried was nigh impossible. I’m now in Western Washington in a spot that has a lot of small local farms. For the same price as the super markets, I can get veggies and fruits that were picked ripe yesterday from the farmers’ market and farms-stands that dot the road sides. Within a couple of months of moving I dropped twenty pounds without even trying (having space to keep my own garden again helped too).

    It’s easy to say people should eat right, but it’s hard when you have to spend time and effort looking for good food on a budget. I’m curious if other people live in places where it’s either really hard or really easy to find delicious healthy food.

  24. I never thought Iw as eating enough vegetables, until I learned just how big (or should I say small) a serving is. I will regularly eat my daily allotment in a bowl of raw broccoli and cauliflower with a little dressing and some feta cheese sprinkled on. Like a salad without the lettuce. Sometimes I add carrots and cucumber when I have them. And it fills me up, so I’m less likely to grab a bag of chips right after. It’s not my favorite meal, but I eat it because I know it’s good for me.

    I’m always curious if those V-8 drinks that say they have a serving of fruit and veggies per glass are really accurate. I slowly started replacing sodas and fruit juice with the light V-8 drinks, which have a lot fewer calories and taste pretty good. If they do really deliver, then I may actually get my daily dose of fruit and veggies like I’m supposed to.

  25. I fully agree with delictuscoeli, it is sometimes difficult to find simple fresh good tasting food.

    We just returned to Oz from a 3 week trip to the USA – LA, Washington DC, New York, Las Vegas. I am in awe and had a great time – I was almost in tears of joy at the Smithsonian. You guys sure are experts with fried stuff using rich dripping or lard. In NY I had Deep Fried Oreos – nom nom – a big thumbs up!

    But….after a few days I was longing for simpler plainer fare.

    One thing I could not find is a decent unadulterated fruit juice like the one I just had for lunch (quoting from the label):

    NO added artificial colours or flavours
    NO added preservatives
    NO added sugar
    NO added water

    WTF goes on? I know you produce beautiful fruit but some of the juices we found to be bloody awful and artificial tasting concentrates. The nearest thing to all natural that we could find, (and advertised as such, made by Nantucket Juices) had sugar listed as the first ingredient!

    Maybe one solution would be to buy direct from the farmers like Brian Lambert does. I am a big fan of his and more recently his cooking blog, Forkbastard.

  26. It may seem irrational that one would want to be healthy, have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, and still choose not to, but ultimately choices are logical. There’s a payoff – time savings, laziness, pleasure, perception – that is just more important that achieving health. And ultimately, what’s most important to you is your choice to make.

    This is a very important point, and one often overlooked when public health debates focus on lifestyle factors. There is no rule of rationality that requires people to attempt to maximise their expected health. Rationality is about optimising your behaviour to your goals. What goals to adopt is a question logic or reason can’t answer.

  27. @Jennifurret:

    It can be challenging to incorporate more fruit & vege in your diet. I was formerly vegetarian, so it is probably easier for me. PLUS, I’m not a poor student. Fresh produce is EXPENSIVE.

    I buy a bag of apples, and usually have one on my cereal, snack on one or two, and have one with my lunch (usually toast with tomato & cheese).

    Dinner can be anything from salads (substantial salads – must have a carb or protein with it – I do not believe in starving the body), to vege casseroles, gratins, etc. You can work in lots of produce, but it’s probably not exactly cheap.

    Tonight we’re having a rustic olive, tomato & cheese tart. The butter alone means I’ll probably be exercising like a maniac tomorrow.

    Sorry, that probably wasn’t very helpful…

  28. It seems to me, from what psychology I’ve studied and my own observations, that the thing is, we just don’t pick our food with our reason. Much more primitive parts of our brains are involved. I grew up picking fruits and vegetables off the vine (or bush, or whatever) and eating it on the spot – if someone was watching, I usually restrained myself long enough to wash the dirt/dust off it in the well a few steps away, but that was about it. I used to eat tomatoes day in and day out all through the season, one after another. If we wanted a salad with lunch, I ran back to the vegetable garden and picked a nice looking head of lettuce, washed it, tore it, tossed it. From dirt to plate in less than half an hour. Today, I go through a produce isle and it all feels somehow fundamentally wrong. I should be able to smell those oranges from here, I’ll think. Or, that lettuce looks at least 5 days old. Or tomatoes aren’t supposed to feel like this. All of it has all the appeal of a bowl of wax fruit. To me, that’s exactly what it is. I know, rationally, I need the vitamins and I know even oranges you can’t smell are a better snack than junk food. But emotionally, all I know is that there’s something very wrong with all of it. This isn’t what a tomato is supposed to feel like, smell like, and certainly not what it’s supposed to taste like.

    Carl Rogers proposed something he calls “organismic valuing” or, in other words, that your body knows what it wants and/or needs, and will respond accordingly. I’ve spent one too many evenings eating everything in the house until I find the one mysterious thing I am craving not to see that there is some truth to that. It certainly seems to me that it’s no coincidence that we consistently pig out on fat and sugar. Fat and sugar are good, and, in nature, usually available in limited quantities, often for a limited amount of time. It was a good survival strategy to eat as much of both as possible while they were available. The problem now is, of course, that they’re available all the time, and more concentrated than they used to be. I don’t think our brains have adjusted to that change yet.

  29. I think a big part of the problem is that there is an all-or-nothing approach. Vegetables don’t “count” unless they are plain and eaten as a side dish. I hate vegetables, especially raw ones. So I try sneak in vegetables in other ways. I’ll put an extra slice of tomato on my cheeseburger and add frozen carrots to any rice that I make. I’ll even put (gasp!) cheese on vegetables to make them taste better. If the choice is between cheesy vegetables and no vegetables, the answer should be an easy one. And by taking attempted weight loss out of the equation, it’s just that much easier to get more vegetables into my stomach. In fact, I actually enjoy some vegetables now that they are no longer a punishment for eating ice cream earlier in the day or for being fat in general.

    I think another problem is that health nuts will tell us that so many vegetable don’t “count”. Potatoes are a lost cause, and I doubt they’ll ever be considered a vegetable again. But the same thing is happening with peas, corn, broccoli, and carrots. These are all vegetables that have been forbidden or criticized in mainstream diets. And things like the tomato sauce on your pasta and the pepper in your jalapeno popper aren’t considered real vegetables, because somehow adding other stuff magically drains out all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Instead of telling people to eat plain lettuce, we should work more on incorporating vegetables into the foods we already like.

  30. @catgirl: Some veggies don’t count? That’s crazy talk! (Okay, I can see that things that are mostly starch or sugar aren’t as good as other vegetables, but still, Carbs have gotten a bad rap by the South Beach/Atkins proselytizers. Study after study has shown calories are calories, source doesn’t matter nearly as much as quantity.)

    I’ve heard corn criticized for too much simple sugar, and it does make my diabetic friend’s glucose spike, but I’ve never heard a bad word about broccoli, peas or carrots…

    Mashed potatoes (especially with the skins removed and loaded with cheese, cream or other high-fat additives) don’t offer much, but baked, roasted or boiled whole potatoes (with the skin) are loaded with vitamins. The Irish in me won’t tolerate a bad word said about them.[*]

    I have a long term goal to accept one new veggie into my life every year. So far, in about 15 years, I’ve acquired broccoli, celery, parsnips and brussels sprouts (to a lesser degree.) These are in addition to the vegetables I’ve eaten all my life. Not hugely successful, but it helps, I think.

    [*]I think most diet advice is more opinion and prejudice than science. People justify the things they like because of anecdote (they heard sometime, someplace, that it’s good for you), and things they don’t like by “if you eat too much of this, you’ll get fat”, which is true of anything with calories and thus unfalsifiable.

  31. “If we want to be healthy, and have the knowledge, tools, & skills to get there, why aren’t we?”

    Simple. Because cheeseburgers taste better then asparagus and choclate cake tastes better than cauliflower.

  32. @hkdharmon: re: fruits and veggies costing zero points in Weight Watchers: that is a great idea. I honestly cannot think of any consumable amount of broccoli, tomatoes, or green beans being bad for you.

    I personally love almost all fruits and vegetables, but doubt I eat three servings of _each_ per day (does ketchup still count?)

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