The illusion of choice? Healthy choices are easier in healthy environments

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

The illusion of choice? Healthy choices are easier in healthy environments
Losing or maintaining weight clearly involves taking responsibility for food and lifestyle choices – but creating a healthier environment could help more people do just that.

Earlier this month Cornell researchers published a research paper in the journal Public Health Nutrition​ in which they claimed that the American food environment makes it ‘almost impossible’ to lose weight and that willpower alone is not enough to overcome its constant cues to eat. (See our original coverage of the paper here​.)

The researchers said that food choice is an illusion. Personally, I think that might be taking things rather too far, but their point still stands – there are persistent triggers in our environment prompting us to eat (and to overeat) and they can be tremendously difficult to resist.

Several readers also thought that discounting personal responsibility was a step too far, and commented that weight loss and maintenance is actually quite straightforward; it’s just a matter of eating well and exercising, saying no to junk food, and turning off the television.

Well yes, there’s no word of a lie there, but some of us find these things more difficult than others.

As long as we are bombarded with messages designed to make less healthy foods look tasty – and heck, that’s the point of food marketing after all – some people will lack the willpower to resist them, some will overeat, and many will have a weight problem as a result. In terms of inspiring healthy choices, environments can be helpful or unhelpful.

Obesity is a complex issue that requires multifaceted solutions. And with two-thirds of the American population either overweight or obese, it is no longer enough to say that people should just take better care of themselves.

There are ​ways to deal with this, and industry has the capacity to take a leading role. However, there needs to be compromise.

Demonizing certain foods and drinks as though they were addictive drugs guarantees backlash. However, insisting that there is a constitutionally protected right to target children with advertising does the same.

Instead, let’s work together on measures that can make a difference, like ensuring public health policy has strong scientific grounding, and recognizing that this is an area that should be free from industry self-interest.

It is clearly not the case that everyone has the same amount of willpower or dedication to losing or maintaining weight. What is clear is that our environment is packed with cues that urge us to eat, and many of them are cues to eat badly.

Despite their bold assertion that food choice is an illusion, the Cornell researchers also acknowledge that personal responsibility does play a role, but advocate using it in the context of collective responsibility to change our food environment to tackle obesity.

This is where choice is not illusory. If we choose to look at health problems in the context of collective responsibility, industry and consumers alike can help, rather than hinder, those who find it hardest to make the right decisions for themselves and their families.

To tackle obesity, we need to empower individuals –and change our food environment too.

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