Jack Bobo: How do we reshape our food environment so that it no longer works against us?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Jack Bobo: 'Over the last fifty years, our environments have been recast in ways that promote unhealthy food choices and unhealthy lifestyles...' Picture credits: Jack Bobo
Jack Bobo: 'Over the last fifty years, our environments have been recast in ways that promote unhealthy food choices and unhealthy lifestyles...' Picture credits: Jack Bobo

Related tags Weight management Obesity Jack Bobo

‘Why is it that at a time when people have never known more about health and nutrition, they have never been more obese?’ asks Jack Bobo in the intro to his new book.

In many respects, it’s hardly a huge mystery, writes Bobo in ‘Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices: The Invisible Influences that Guide Our Thinking.'​  ​We live increasingly sedentary lifestyles and food is available everywhere, 24:7, which means we have to sustain superhuman levels of discipline to stay svelte.

And while we often tell ourselves that nutritional advice keeps changing (‘even the experts can’t agree’​), we all know we should stop smoking, move more, drink less, eat more fruit & veg, and cut down on soda, cookies and pizza, he says.

The challenge is following that advice when everything in our environment – the ‘foodscape’ - is working against us.

At base, framing weight management purely as a question of willpower and self-discipline is both unfair and demonstrably ineffective, says Bobo, an attorney with an educational background in biology, chemistry, environmental science and psychology, who spent 13 years at the State Department as a global food policy advisor before joining biotech firm Intrexon and setting up food foresight company Futurity​. 

If three quarters of the adult population is unable to maintain a healthy weight in a culture where obesity – despite its ubiquity - still comes with real social stigma as well as health risks, he says, you have to wonder whether the odds are stacked against us.

Education isn’t the issue: ‘In 1960, nobody knew anything about health and nutrition and yet nobody was obese’

“It’s pretty clear that it really comes down to environment and behavior​, not education​,” says Bobo, who spoke to FoodNavigator-USA for our upcoming weight management special edition.

In 1960, nobody knew anything about health and nutrition and yet nobody was obese​.”

Previous generations didn’t have more willpower, he says, they just weren’t exposed to the same temptations, and they burned off more calories in the course of daily activities (gyms and keto diets weren’t a thing in 1921, but most people remained slim) without having to schedule ‘exercise’ into their diaries.

‘Let's take willpower out of the equation and reshape our environments...’

So if educating people doesn’t really move the needle, and major policy changes are challenging in a political environment where even minor policy interventions are presented as an unacceptable assault on our freedoms, how can food retailers, corporate cafeterias, urban planners, schools, restaurants, and consumers utilize learnings from behavioral science to alter the foodscape?

There's no silver bullet, says Bobo, but every small ‘nudge’ and intervention that alters the foodscape makes it just a tiny bit easier to make healthier choices, without bringing willpower into the equation. 

There are scores of ideas and examples in his book, many of which are based on the fact that, "the rational mind is lazy and will often allow our intuitive to take the lead, which often means pursuing the path of least resistance,"​ so if we make the default option healthier, but still offer less healthy options, we're being invisibly guided to a better outcome without feeling like we're being manipulated, or deprived of choices.

Don’t ban fries and soda, just make healthier options the default​: eg. Make water, milk, or 100% juice the default beverage with kids’ meals (soda’s still on sale, you just have to ask for it). Make salad or fruit the default (fries are still on sale, but you have to ask for them).

(In Disney theme parks where this has been tested, the overwhelming majority of parents stick with the healthy default for beverages, and about half stay with the healthier alternative to fries, claims the CSPI​.​)

12oz cups… and free refills​: Don’t ban Big Gulps, just sell 12oz soda cups, and offer free refills. (If you really want more soda, you can have it, says Bobo, but incremental increases in the size of dinner plates, wine glasses, soda cups, and portion sizes have steadily conditioned us to eat more). "If the default size is small, then diners will drink less."

Sell the footlong sub, but wrap each half separately​: If you’re really hungry, you’ll eat the whole thing regardless, says Bobo. But if not, "consumers would give serious thought to whether they should open the other half or simply take it home."

Bring out the take-home box with the meal:​ This way, restaurants can still sell large portions, which consumers have become conditioned to expect, but boxing half of it as soon as it arrives can help curb overeating at the table.

Rethink menu labeling:  ​Position healthy choices as culinary delights with appeal to all diners, not reduced fat/sugar options for dieters: ​“You might not be tempted by ‘low-fat vegetarian black bean soup,’ but a bowl of ‘Cuban black bean soup’ sounds pretty exciting.”

Don’t create a ‘healthy choice’ section of the menu​: Position healthier options as mainstream menu items, not dishes relegated to a ‘healthy’ section at the end of the menu or something for people on special or restricted diets. “Redesign menus so that the healthier choices are more likely to be selected.”

Put the snacks further away from the coffee machine​: ​Experiments by Michiel Bakker in Google’s corporate cafeterias show that even simple strategies such as moving the snacks further away from the coffee machine means you’re less likely to grab them as you wait for your coffee, says Bobo.

Put appetizing veggies at the start of the buffet line​: Simply by positioning appetizing vegetable dishes at the start of a buffet line in one experiment at a Google cafeteria, employees ate more veg, and less meat, says Bobo.  ​While a handful of Googlers deliberately kept their plates empty to have room for the meat (positioned at the end of the buffet line) most “filled their plates with the vegetable dishes before they even arrived at the lamb.

“A nudge is not about eliminating options or stigmatizing meat eaters, it is about encouraging better behavior while leaving ample room for choice and our inner sweet-toothed demons.”

Make healthier beverages more visible​: “One study in a hospital cafeteria found that placing water at eye level in refrigerators and in baskets near food stations increased water consumption by 26%.”

Don’t sell junk food at the checkout​: Clearly, it helps of there is buy-in via trade associations for this kind of thing to help create a level playing field, says Bobo, “But these are things that will eventually become the industry norm. I would say, you can either do it today, and you’ll get credit and good publicity, or you can do it tomorrow, and you will be vilified for having dragged your feet.”

Jack Bobo: “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 of our habits combined with our environment. Food culture in America has changed drastically since the 1970s, when I was growing up. And it isn’t one thing, it’s everything.” Picture credit: Jack Bobo

‘Do you actually want to improve the health of consumers, or do you just want to convey to consumers that you are improving their health?’

When it comes to the packaged food industry, says Bobo, CPG companies have made significant efforts to cut calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar and add in positive nutrition (fiber, vitamin D, chia seeds), but they’re also selling a lot of organic, plant-based, Non-GMO, and all-natural junk food.

As Dr. Robert Lustig also observed in a recent interview​ with us, Coke is 100% plant-based, and Non-GMO cookies with biodynamic cane sugar and organic chocolate chips are still cookies.

“I have had conversations with some of these large companies, and they've asked me questions about how does one communicate healthy choices in food?" ​says Bobo. "My first question for them is, do you actually want to improve the health of consumers, or do you just want to convey to consumers that you are improving their health?”

Is plant-based healthier? Depends how you define plant-based

The term ‘plant-based’ – which many consumers now see as a proxy for ‘healthy’ or ‘better for you’ - is already being used on products that might be made from plants (think chips and soda), but probably aren’t what most dietitians have in mind when they’re encouraging us all to eat more plants, he says.

While most RDs would characterize a plant-based or plant-forward diet as one packed with fruits, veggies, nuts and whole grains, he observes, pretty much all of the investment dollars in plant-based innovation are going into meat and dairy analogs containing a very narrow set of ingredients (oils, starches, gums, protein powders from a handful of commodity crops).

There’s nothing wrong with plant-based ice cream or bacon, and there are clearly environmental and animal welfare issues at play here too, says Bobo, but what if the same amount of cash and brain power was directed to finding appetizing, affordable and convenient ways to eat a wider variety of plants, of all colors of the rainbow?

“I'm thinking a lot about how do we de-stigmatize frozen food," ​says Bobo. "How do we make it cool and exciting so people don't feel like they're giving their kids something that's suboptimal?

If we were to eat our five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, we would crowd out the other stuff because they’re simply more filling.”

Learn more about Bobo's new book HERE​.     


"The truth is that diets don’t work for most people. Sure, many diets work for some people for a short period of time, but there just isn’t much evidence that any particular diet works for most people over a period of months or years.

“Diets are built on the premise that we can lose ten, twenty, or thirty pounds in months if we just stick to the plan, but that’s not how we gained the weight. We gained one, two, or three pounds a year for thirty years. In order to get back to a place where knowing what and how much to eat is an afterthought rather than an act of soldierly willpower, we need to change our food habits, and to do that we need to change our food environment.

"If we do, we will find that we lose one, two, or three pounds a year for the next thirty years, and we’ll get back to a healthier, happier way of being.” Jack Bobo

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