FARAHAT: Creating optimal food defaults

The tale of Hansel and Gretel is not a very pleasant one. I never warmed up to it, and couldn´t bring myself to sympathize with the siblings, taken aback by their greed and lack of self-restraint. It couldn´t be more ironic, then, that my relationship with the United States has resembled that of the gluttonous pair to their coveted house of sweets.

When I was a child, growing up abroad, I viewed American goods as the highest luxuries. The kids who managed to bring so much as a packet of Gushers to school achieved cult status within the bounds of a boisterous cafeteria. The entrancing stroll down the snack aisle in Walgreens was one of the more pleasant childhood memories I recall from visiting the United States. Within that highly caloric space, it seemed as though the world, colorfully adorned with incarnations of sugar, was at my feet.

Only after coming to Yale did my cherished supermarket aisle suffer an extreme makeover. Here, I began to observe a prominent snacking culture. Even within the walls of Yale, study breaks of Insomnia Cookies or pancakes are aggressively advertised, with students as their most faithful ambassadors.

The ease, availability and variety of these troublesome appetizers are the foundation of a snacking culture that threatens the ability of most Americans to maintain healthy diets. A handful of multi-billion dollar companies have determined exactly what our bodies crave, exploiting their knowledge for profit.

Centuries ago, food was scarce, creating an evolutionary impetus for us to seek calorie-dense foods to survive. A study published by the Royal Society in 2007 demonstrated that humans remember the locations of high calorie foods more easily — and appreciate their taste more. The evolutionary adaptations that once served us so well have come back to haunt us.

Yale University is a global icon of intellect and knowledge. Yet even here, we are not immune to the seductive dangers of processed foods. The food culture at Yale nudges people to gain unhealthy amounts of weight. But Yale, the government and other institutions prefer to view eating as a matter of personal responsibility — in the light I viewed Hansel and Gretel. We blame individuals for being obese, rather than looking at the institutions that are causing obesity.

The environment in which we live, however, plays a pivotal role in determining how much food we eat. A 1994 study published in the journal Diabetes Care examined the case of the Pima Indians native to Mexico. Over time, their group split into two communities: one remained in agricultural Mexico, the other left to industrialized Arizona. The Pima in Arizona, where food was more accessible, began to experience worse health outcomes — and now currently exhibit the highest rates of diabetes in the world and elevated rates of obesity.

In their book, Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein describe the idea of “libertarian paternalism,” which encourages the creation of optimal defaults to promote healthier lifestyles. Their argument prompts an important question: should policies at Yale encourage individuals to regulate their own eating choices, or should policies encourage students to make the most optimal choices?

Thaler and Sunstein use the example of sin taxes on cigarettes. Here at Yale, the administration should apply similar defaults to our food choices. The boldest of these defaults would be to limit the offering of unhealthy foods like pizza and chicken tenders to once a week. We must realize that providing both healthy and unhealthy options is not equivalent to total freedom of choice. Upon offering high calorie foods, dining halls subconsciously nudge people to eat them, and demand them to exert more self-control if they choose to resist.

Simple changes — like rearranging food in the dining hall — could go a long way. When a student first steps into the dining hall, the first thing he or she sees should not be cakes, pastries or cookies, but rather healthier options. And study breaks offering free pizza and cookies make Yale no better than the witch that seduced Hansel and Gretel. When we understand the influential effect of environmental cues on our decisions, our responsibility lies in developing policy that place less weight on the individual through optimal defaults.

By placing a greater emphasis on environmental conditions, and less on personal responsibility, we can hold institutions more accountable and drive greater change in the effort to contain the epidemic that is overwhelming the United States.

Hana Farahat is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at hana.farahat@yale.edu .

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