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English review - (Un)healthy eating

Dutch society is increasingly facing the consequences of unhealthy eating habits. Lifestyle diseases such as chronic obesity and diabetes are affecting millions of people. Why are our eating patterns as unhealthy as they are? And, more importantly: How can we change them for the better? Jaap Seidell, professor of Nutrition and Health Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, offered a  multifaceted analysis of causes and solutions to these problems. After his lecture he engaged in a conversation with cognition scientist Esther Aarts on the relationship between our brains and the food we eat, and what we can do to eat more healthy.

Nutritional confusion

One major difficulty in our approaches to unhealthy eating has to do with consumer confusion. Seidell pointed out that people are often unsure on what to eat and what not to eat because it seems that not even science itself has clear answers to what is good or bad for us. One day we read a study claiming that milk is beneficial to our general health, the next day another emphasizes the risks in drinking milk. However, in reality nutritional experts agree on much more than is often believed, Seidell argued. There is a consensus, for instance, that a healthy diet consists of sufficient vegetables, fruit and whole weeds, and one should seek to avoid fast-foods and sugars.

How are our habits determined?

However simply knowing what food is good and what is bad actually has relatively little impact on our eating patterns. Seidell emphasized that nutritional advice alone is notoriously ineffective in causing changes in our eating habits. Broader and more encompassing strategies are needed. These have to account for so-called social and neurological determinants that shape the ways in which we consume. Often the discussion in food and health focusses on personal choices. Seidell wondered whether this focus is justified, for aren’t consumers constrained in their choices? Social determinants influence the decisions consumers make. In our increasingly busy lives, we have little time to seek out and prepare healthy meals. Instead, we resort to fast, easy, and bad foods. Those living on lower incomes face the fact that unhealthy foods are generally cheaper than healthy alternatives. Furthermore brain research shows that the unhealthy foods we eat actually influence why we decide what we to eat and how much we consume.

Ultraprocessed foods and the effects on our brains

In the conversation after the lecture Esther Aarts discussed the effects unhealthy diets have on our brains. Sugars and fats trigger the reward systems in our brains. This was biologically useful to us when these nutrients were hard to come by. In a modern consumerist society, in which large amounts of these ingredients are part of nearly all our ultraprocessed foods, the natural balance is lost. We now overconsume salt, sugar and fat. The neurological effects of this closely resemble addiction. Like addicts, we have increasingly become conditioned to sustain our unhealthy diets. Furthermore, we are continuously influenced by aggressive marketing strategies to develop positive associations with ‘bad’ foods. One can think of the exiting cartoon designs for candy, specifically aimed at seducing children. From the start, we learn to love what is unhealthy.

Individual change

If our reward systems can be triggered by the overdoses of sugars and fats in the cheap, easy, and fast ultraprocessed products, we can also find ways to make healthy products rewarding. Aarts wondered whether it would not be possible to use those some marketing techniques to market healthy products. Why not advertise broccoli with those same cartoon designs? This could help children develop positive associations with vegetables. Furthermore she pointed out how people could also be made aware of their dietary habits. When people are aware of this, they can perhaps reward themselves with an apple rather than a piece of chocolate when they come home from a long day’s work.

Collective measures

While Aarts saw positive opportunities in steering individual behavior, Seidell had a word of warning. Increasing the individual’s awareness of dietary habits and offering ways of reversing bad habits is useful and important, yet it is not enough. Focusing on individual lifestyles minimizes the responsibility of politics and the food industry. They are the actors that control the supply and availability of our food. For Seidell, society collectively needs to reconsider - perhaps in a radical manner - whether unhealthy food should even have a place in our supermarkets, restaurants, or schools. Large scale measures are necessary to combat and prevent a further increase in lifestyle diseases. For this reason, we need to normalize healthy nutritional patterns in our day-to-day behavior, but also regulate the food industry.

This report was written by Frank Kruijsbeek, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.