By Andrew W.,
Chef, Restauteur, Healthy Food Advocate

Americans Are Unhealthy - Physically and Mentally - And Here Is Why (partly)

Two sentences. Seven words. That’s it. Two short sentences and seven simple words that Americans love to use on a daily basis. Spoken sometimes in passing, sometimes definitively, but always too frequently. They lead to the America we live in today. An America that is unhealthy, overweight, and downright unhappy. “But that’s not me!” you exclaim. Well, hate to break it to you, statistics say “Yes it is!!!”. Don’t believe it? Take a look:

  • More than 80% of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, despite 75% reporting their dietary habits as good, very good, or excellent
  • Nearly 71% of Americans are overweight (including obese)
  • Only 33% of Americans reported being happy

Chances are, you are rethinking whether or not you fall in to one of these categories. Even just one of those. And it’s ok to admit that. It’s not ok, however, to sit idly by and be complacent as the nation you love dies (literally, figuratively, and financially) as a result. That’s right, some research suggests about 18% of deaths in the U.S. are obesity related.

Can you imagine, just for one moment, that almost 1 out of 5 people around you right now could die a preventable death? And that 67% percent of the people around you are unhappy, with another 6.7% experiencing major depression?

Enough with the dismal percentages. For now. Let’s get back to those two sentences constructed with seven words. “I don’t know” and “I don’t have time”.

If you were told you could help curb the aforementioned health epidemic by reducing those two statements would you?

“I don’t know.” It’s how you respond to solving mysteries of the universe or the last number of pi. In an age where information is seemingly (and is) endless, options are miserably abundant and making a simple decision feels impossible. Books, magazines, TV, internet, blogs, advertisers, and even Grandma are providing choice after choice, no matter what the desired “question” may be.

It’s great! Right? That depends. It is the paradox of choice. Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the increasing number of choices we have may actually increase our negative emotions because of the opportunity costs associated with making that decision. These costs are, simply put, losing an opportunity that a different choice may have afforded. Take for example choosing to see the latest Star Wars film instead of going bowling. Both are fun (if that’s what you like to do), but by seeing the movie you have missed the chance to bowl that perfect game. The more choices you have in any given scenario, the more potential opportunity costs you incur.

Lyle Brenner of the University of Florida was able to demonstrate this by having subjects assign a dollar amount to magazine subscriptions. Some participants attached prices to a single subscription, while others attached prices to the same magazine when it was part of a group of three or more choices. Prices were consistently lower when a given alternative was evaluated as part of a group than when it was evaluated in isolation, despite being the exact same magazine. Why? Because every other magazine in the comparison contained a “loss”, or opportunity cost. No comparison, no loss. The value a choice has is highest when it has not been saturated by the opportunity cost of more options.

Schwartz was able to classify two main groups of people when it comes to decision making. “Maximizers” are the people who want to make the “best” possible decision or purchase based on extensive research and product comparison. The downside - Maximizers tend to exhibit the highest feelings of regret when confronted with the worry of whether or not the decision was the “best” one made. Regret in turn breads unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and depression.

On the opposite spectrum of Maximizers are what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert Simon coined as “Satisficers”. These are the “good enough” individuals, whether or not other options are available. They are less likely to make a better informed decision than Maximizers, but derive more satisfaction from them due to decreased available opportunity costs.

Take purchasing a new car for example. The Maximizer did all their research, read reviews, compared models, and made an informed decision. They drive the car for a few months and it hasn’t lived up to their high expectations. That regret is compounded by the time and energy spent just making that decision. The Satisficer, in contrast, doesn’t know what they missed out on and are happy with their purchase. The same opportunity costs are evident when a group of people are sold season passes at full and at discount prices. The people that paid full price are likely to attend more often because of the association with the value and associated costs of not attending.

Schwartz also adds “The research that my colleagues and I have done suggests that maximizers are prime candidates for depression. With group after group of people, varying in age (including young adolescents), gender, educational level, geographic location, race and socioeconomic status, we have found a strong correlation between maximizing and measures of depression. If the experience of disappointment is relentless, if virtually every choice you make fails to live up to expectations and aspirations, and if you consistently take personal responsibility for the disappointments, then the trivial looms larger and larger, and the conclusion that you cannot do anything right becomes devastating. Although depression has many sources, and the relation among choice, maximizing and depression requires more study, there is good reason to believe that overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society.”

In similar research conducted by psyco-economist Sheena Iyengar, it was found that personal choice generally enhanced motivation in American adults. In a complementary study, however, she found that seven or eight choices is the most our human brains can handle before becoming overwhelmed.

What does all this mean? It can be assumed that having choices is necessary and motivational, but like most foods, need to be consumed in moderation. While positive emotions begin to plateau as choices increase, negative emotions continue the downward trend as more and more choices are introduced. And Nobelist psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University found that losses (opportunity costs here) have a much greater psychological impact than gains. Be a very conservative Maximizer. Make a sound, intelligent, informed decision, but limit your choices from the get go.

If “A” “B” and “C” are all exceptional choices, there is no need to explore D-Z.

Now you may be asking “So how in the world does ‘I Don’t Know’ affect my health physically?”. Much in the same ways it does mentally, actually. Did I cook the right dish? Would the salmon have been healthier? Am I on the right diet?

When you are given too many choices about what to eat it easily becomes overwhelming, QUICKLY.

Take that famous named-after-a-dessert restaurant that has a 974-ish page menu. Yeah that one. So many choices is exciting, right? And then the server has to come by a dozen times asking if you are ready to order, despite you saying “one more minute” thirty minutes ago. Eventually you succumb to the pressure and anxiety and eenie-meanie-minie-moe-style choose something. Was it what you actually wanted and was it actually going to help you stick to your diet, or end up on your ever-growing never-ending list of the cheat meals you swore off in your New Years resolution.

The same phenomenon can be seen in our dining at home. You may think: So much in the pantry or fridge, so few options. Do I need to go to the grocery store? Is it healthy? Is it on my diet? Do I even know how to make this? I mean come on I’m not on Chopped and I’m sure not on next seasons Top Chef.

I just want to be healthy.

By reducing your options to a few HEALTHY choices you can help spare yourself the headaches and bellyaches.

If you are not sure what is and what isn’t healthy then look to someone you trust, be it a registered dietician, personal trainer, or a friend who is a chef.
Let them be your dining “role model” per se. “I don’t know” is gone and healthy you is here to stay.

“I don’t have time”. Who does, right? You do. Yes, Americans work a lot. Yes, Americans lead busy lives. Yes, Americans lead a fast paced life style in comparison to MANY other cultures. But face it, you do have time. The problem is that you feel like you don’t have time. Organization and time management are immense obstacles that present themselves in every adult’s life.

The fact is, to keep the glorious (albeit overweight and unhealthy) US-of-A alive it’s citizens must do a superior job of at least trying to do better.

Start by throwing out that trusty ToDo list. They don’t work. The most successful people in the world have found this to be true in an overwhelming majority. They are based on complexity, difficulty, priority, and time, with time meaning time versus time available. And face it, all of those items look the same whether scribbled on the lines of your legal pad or neatly scripted in the Notes app on your phone. Of course there is the lack of commitment to them also. The Chinese general Han Xin used to position his troops so their backs were against a river to prevent them from retreating or running away. Is there a river rushing behind your list? Doubtful.

Instead, try organizing your HoneyDo list in to your calendar. Take the extra few minutes to assign values and time to each task. Doing this - deciding which item when - overcomes the paradox of choice by compensating for the intrinsic heterogeneity of task, context, commitment, and you guessed it, time.

Try this approach with meal planing, shopping, cooking, and dining too. Planning all of this out by day and week can help save countless you hours “don’t have”, make healthy decisions that don’t cost you your happiness, and kill the obesity that is killing our nation.

Right now, Americans are spending and average of >43 minutes in the grocery store, staring at 38,900 items, 1.5 times a week and driving an average of 3.79 miles just to get there! When you get there, you don’t always remember what you were there for in the first place.

By having your meals planned out from sound and healthy options you can avoid that extra trip caused by those times you did forget something. Fear not List Builders! This is when you get to make one! Only 52% of men compile grocery lists, compared to 69% of women. Up those numbers and save everyone some time, but make sure not to get suckered back in to the perviously mentioned productivity killing kind.

“I don’t have time to cook healthy!” Jibberish. Rubbish. Foolish. Cooking and shopping healthy is no harder than cooking garbage meals. It’s convenient to eat poorly.

Doubtfully the 44% of Americans that eat fast food AT LEAST once a week think they are starting the next healthy diet trend. It is what is advertised - fast food. If it were good for you it would be advertised as such - fast HEALTHY food.

That doesn’t mean you are a terrible person for eating there out of necessity. There are decent, even healthy, options at more and more establishments popping up every day. Be wary of what you order when it looks good for you. Even reputable, “good-for-you", restaurants have meal items you should avoid at all cost. For example, Panera Bread is consistently listed as one of the healthiest fast food or quick service restaurants out there. Lurking, waiting to strike on that ever so enticing menu, though, is the Mac and Cheese or NE Clam Chowder in a bread bowl. Even the Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken is loaded with sugar and fat. A SALAD WITH CHICKEN.

Sure, when you are cooking at home it takes a little more thought and effort than swinging through the drive-thru or ordering delivery. But at least you know exactly what you are putting in to that temple of a body you have (or are working on).

It is engaging and conversational to do with others, with the added benefit of bragging rights (and Pinterest triumphs!) when you create something delicious…All with the rewarding bonus-extra credit-smiley face sticker- points it provides your bodies.

Back to those two sentences and seven words. Still think you don’t have time or you don’t know? Consider this: Couples spend an average of 132 hours a year, or 5.5 DAYS, deciding what bad food to eat. Seems like too many bad choices cluttering up time and space in the brain of the United States that could be spent learning the CPR it will take to revive it.

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” - Winston Churchill, 1943