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Book Review: Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices


The goal of Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices is to alter not only our individual eating habits, but to change society’s relationship with food. It is truly a book for our times and our appetites. (Originally published at New York Journal of Books)

Author Jack A. Bobo, who has worked for 13 years as a senior adviser on global food policy and spent the last decade learning how behavioral science can improve our eating decisions, states at the get-go that his book is not about slimming down and confirms why weight-loss diets inevitably only make us fatter, saying, “The truth is that diets don’t work for most people . . . the research is pretty clear that a lack of self-control is not what’s making us fat . . . reducing obesity in America is not about diets or information. It’s not about reading labels or counting calories. Instead, it is about changing our food culture, which is the sum of all our habits.”

Bobo presents evidence that it is our eating choices (type of food, portion size, and eating frequency) that are ratcheting up the number on the scale. For readers left feeling helpless and hopeless that willpower is not the answer to better eating, he provides sensible, evidence-based strategies for us and our culture to forge new habits that with practice will have real sticking power.

The book is divided into three parts: The Mindscape of Food, The Foodscape of Industries that Produce and Sell Food, and Transforming the Environment, which is the only way we will all be able to eat more healthfully for good.

In The Mindscape, Bobo takes us into the complex arena of human irrationality—our hard-wired mental short cuts that fail to serve us today by causing us to overestimate our abilities, intelligence, and open-mindedness. He maintains that “In order for us to make good decisions about the food we eat, we need to be able to change our minds—about food, but also about other things in our lives as well.” We need to be far more curious about ourselves and our choices, let go of confirmation bias and judgments, be open to new information that may challenge our current mindset, and use far greater critical thinking skills than we have been using around food.

The Mindscape explains why we fear certain foods and view others as beneficial based on untruths we have been sold by clever marketing. Bobo shows how the “halo effect” of labeling foods as “natural, clean and “healthy” intentionally misguides us to think they are more nutritional than they are, and how we make poor choices due to not understanding, for example, that low-fat foods are often high in sugar and sugar-free foods are often full of fat.

Bobo helps us understand how the fast versus slowing thinking of our “lazy” brains causes us to make automatic choices in and out of the food arena that lead to unhealthy results. He describes how mental and decision fatigue from brain overload, following the herd rather than science or our values, and reflexive decision-making unconsciously steer us toward unhealthy food choices, and how we set ourselves up for them when we fail to bring our critical thinking skills to the grocery store and the dinner table.

The Foodscape covers how we buy, prepare, eat, think, and talk about food and how much it is in the forefront of our minds wherever we are—kitchen, dining room, grocery store, restaurant, food truck, snack machine, or lunch room. “Everything about our food environment—from the music in restaurants to plate size” has changed over the decades and influences how we eat. Today, the media and internet play a large role in helping manipulate our thoughts and behaviors.

We learn why short-term thinking often prevails and how the number of food choices we face makes it more likely for us to make poor decisions. However, Bobo explains, an over-abundance of choices is not the biggest problem in our Foodscape. That culprit would be increased portion size, which started as a way to increase food industry profits and has now made super-sized the norm.

Moreover, culturally it has become normal to overeat. Both food labeling in grocery stores and placing nutritional information on restaurant menus have largely failed to increase healthy eating or decrease overeating. Even the number of people we dine with can up our food intake, just as their preferences can shift our choices from more to less healthy.

Transforming the Environment tells us that to improve our relationship with food, we need more than diets. Bobo rightfully steers us away from trying harder to trying smarter, both individually and as a culture. He insists that we need to radically change our food culture that underlies our food choices, and he offers practical individual and societal strategies for doing so. His goal is “not to force certain outcomes on individuals, but rather to create environments that facilitate healthier choices.”

We can do this by learning from the wisdom of “choice architects, people who create environments that influence decisions.” These decisions are about everything from plate size to food density, from visual cues in restaurants to supermarkets “nudging” us toward or away from nutritional foods, from the music that is played in restaurants to setting the stage for our default to be healthy or unhealthful eating.

Bobo describes how behavioral science approaches these goals via the “four Ps of behavior change.” A “process” intervention would be putting healthier foods at the beginning of a buffet line and moving water to eye level near food stations (where soda usually is). “Persuasion” would involve more effective messaging of beneficial information about food options through improving words, tone, and timing of what is said. “Possibilities” would focus on reducing the varieties of food served, as studies tell us that more options lead to overeating. Changing the “Person” would provide tools proven to help people achieve better eating, such as those detailed in The Mindscape.

Scientific and case studies make this book come alive, including detailed, in-depth descriptions of how Google and the town of Huntington, West Virginia, succeeded at changing their food environment and, respectively, the eating of their employees and citizens. Research on the longevity and health of people living in Blue Zones is also described, illustrating how environment and culture shape our relationship with food and giving us hope that engaging in the practices laid out in this book will improve ours.

This book provides more long-term help than any diet or weight-loss book can because it tackles our problem with food at the macro/micro and conscious/unconscious levels. It teaches us how to change our habits and shape our environment so that healthful eating becomes our automatic, natural choice.