“Are We There Yet?” Road Tripping and the Psychology of Food

I got back to my desk this morning after a five-day road trip to Portland and Southwest Washington State. An article came my way via the APHA and USA Today – From Brain to Mouth, the Psychology of Obesity, which outlined a number of studies being shared at the American Psychological Association’s annual general meeting. It caught my attention because during our family vacation, we had eaten in restaurants far more than usual, with children’s menus that were long on tater tots and short on broccoli.

During our roadtrip, we all ate way more food of much less quality than usual, despite my attempts to work in some fruit and veggie snacks whenever possible. Restaurant portions, even the kid-sized portions, were huge, yet my kids said they were hungry as soon as the car ground to a halt in the cross-border lineup. Clearly, this was food as activity, rather than a means to satisfy a basic physical need. Instead of eating when hungry, they started looking at food as a cure for boredom.

So, why is the current population now programmed to eat more and move less? Well, I don’t have the answer to that but some American psychologists are working on it, and this idea provokes some re-thinking of my own.

“Food is everywhere at any time, and advertising is an additional lure” says psychologist Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “We’ve been completely retrained to think that large portions are acceptable, that eating throughout the day is acceptable, that eating late at night is acceptable, that eating in the car is acceptable,” he says. “All the boundaries that would put limits around eating have been exploded.”

It also started me thinking about the consistency with which children are shown that the foods appropriate to them are pizza, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, fish sticks and fries or the ever present ‘tater tot’. How can we train healthy eaters when what used to be ‘treats’ are now provided at every available meal? It made me very glad that BC instigated the Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in BC Schools to help those who provide school lunches to move outside this unhealthy box, or to provide healthier variations when these standby foods are presented.

How we interact with the outside impetus to eat should lead us to look, as Marion Nestle suggests, to improve the food environments that surround us. Saying ‘no’ to unhealthy requests from our children is part of a parent’s job, but it’s nice when there are healthy options available to fill the gap once we’ve done our part.

Samantha Hartley-Folz
Manager, Policy and Programs
August 2012

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