Christopher Warton: Hi every­one. My name is Chris Wharton. I’m an Associate Professor of Nutrition here at Arizona State University. I’m also Interim Director of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

So let me start off by pro­vid­ing a brief descrip­tion of an oth­er­wise non­de­script day in the life of an aver­age American. This per­son gets up in the morn­ing, quick­ly gets ready then hops in the car for her twen­ty or so minute com­mute to the office. She stops by Starbucks, gets to the office, then sits down at her desk to work at her com­put­er.

Around mid­day she’s hun­gry, so she heads out to lunch at a near­by cafe. And comes back to the office to fin­ish up her work. After a pret­ty long day, she’s ready to head home. But you know, she’s tired. So she grabs some din­ner on the way home, then gets back, relax­es in front of the TV before head­ing off to bed.

Now none of that sounds out of the ordi­nary, or con­cern­ing in any way. But, I con­tend, it’s com­plete­ly shock­ing. You see, we live in the Matrix. And if you remem­ber that movie, there’s a char­ac­ter Morpheus who offers to anoth­er char­ac­ter Neo a blue pill or a red pill. Take the blue pill, and go back to every­day life. Take the red pill, and see the world for what it actu­al­ly is. I’m offer­ing you the red pill.

And here’s what the red pill would show you. Americans spend more time in their cars then they do out­side. Watch thirty-five hours of tele­vi­sion a week. Spend more mon­ey on food away from the home than they do on gro­ceries. And, waste a third of the food pro­duced in the US. And that wast­ed food rep­re­sents $640 of lost val­ue at the house­hold lev­el annu­al­ly. And it rep­re­sents the third-largest source of man­made methane emis­sions at the nation­al lev­el.

The major­i­ty of Americans are also indebt­ed, have less than a thou­sand dol­lars of retire­ment sav­ings, and if faced with a $500 emer­gency would have to take out a loan or sell some­thing to man­age the cost.

In oth­er words, we live in a world of wild, dam­ag­ing, unsus­tain­able excess. We’re sur­round­ed by unhealthy food options. We live in places built for cars, not for walk­ing or bik­ing. We’re buried in our screens 247. We face calls to buy stuff, end­less­ly. And we live in a con­sumer cul­ture that is depen­dent on the notion of dis­pos­al.

But here’s the thing. These excess­es are so ful­ly nor­mal­ized, they so ful­ly meet our expec­ta­tions of how every­day life ought to look, that we no longer real­ly see them as exces­sive at all. They sim­ply hide in plain sight. As a result, we eat poor­ly, we move too lit­tle, we spend too much, we dam­age the envi­ron­ment along the way, and all of these as our default behav­iors.

So what’s been the response to this unfor­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion? Well, when it comes to almost any behav­ior change, spe­cial­ists often sug­gest this baby steps approach. Doing one lit­tle thing at a time, and then build­ing up slow­ly but sure­ly from there. And that’s prob­a­bly because that’s how we do our research. We take this reduc­tion­ist approach to behav­ior, like we would any oth­er type of exper­i­men­tal research.

The prob­lem, how­ev­er, is that if we live in a world of excess, then chang­ing one small thing at a time will sim­ply do noth­ing for many. Why? Because the whole of the envi­ron­ment around us, and the rest of our lifestyles, is still built to sup­port the behav­ior that we used to engage in, not the new one that we’re try­ing to achieve.

So what’s the solu­tion? Well, if excess is the prob­lem, sim­plic­i­ty is the solu­tion. And, if excess is per­va­sive then chang­ing small things one at a time sim­ply won’t cut it. In fact, I con­tend, a pos­si­ble route of greater suc­cess is to change every­thing, all at once. That sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive—and, hard, right. But, recent research has shown we’re far more adapt­able to change, even dra­mat­ic change, than we give our­selves cred­it for. And it’s pos­si­ble that mak­ing mul­ti­ple changes in key behav­iors, includ­ing screen time, trans­porta­tion, eat­ing, mov­ing, and spend­ing, could syn­er­gis­ti­cal­ly work togeth­er not only to help changes per­sist but to have simul­ta­ne­ous pos­i­tive impacts in mul­ti­ple areas of life, includ­ing health, wealth (or finan­cial secu­ri­ty), hap­pi­ness, and sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

So my lab at ASU is now inves­ti­gat­ing this approach to lifestyle-wide behav­ior change. And we’re just begin­ning to find some inter­est­ing results. The key is values-based behav­ior. Values like good health, liv­ing sus­tain­ably, con­nect­ing to com­mu­ni­ty. These are all impor­tant not just to one behav­ior, but to many behav­iors at once. It turns out when peo­ple choose behav­iors based on their val­ues and not on the exces­sive norms that are so com­mon, behav­ior changes become more impor­tant, more impact­ful, and pos­si­bly more per­sis­tent. And often these val­ues are based in the virtue of sim­plic­i­ty, by engag­ing less in the con­sumer cul­ture that dri­ves us to ill health, and destroy the envi­ron­ment.

For exam­ple, we con­duct­ed research with community-supported agri­cul­ture par­tic­i­pants. These are peo­ple who sign up with local farms to receive week­ly ship­ments of fruits and veg­eta­bles rather than get­ting them from the gro­cery store or a big box store. These par­tic­i­pants told us they were moti­vat­ed by mul­ti­ple syn­er­gis­tic val­ues includ­ing health, con­cern for the envi­ron­ment, and con­nec­tion to com­mu­ni­ty. As a result, they tried hard­er to use the healthy foods that they got, and they worked hard­er to avoid wast­ing those foods in a way that was dif­fer­ent than foods they might get from the gro­cery store.

Our work into the future will build upon these ideas to cre­ate mul­ti­ple behav­ior change method­olo­gies. We’ll be devel­op­ing inter­ven­tions employ­ing what we call values-based behav­ioral sys­tems that lim­it screen time—especially at night, increase active transportation—for exam­ple bicy­cling for errands, eat­ing sim­pler and health­i­er foods, and man­ag­ing a bud­get based on val­ues, to see how we can move peo­ple to make lots of change, all at once, for the ben­e­fit of them­selves and the plan­et.

So, as you leave here today, ask your­self this: which pill did you take? Will you walk out those doors and see the world as you always have? Or will you see a world poten­tial­ly far out of sync with your own val­ues, your own health? And if you do, how bold could you be chang­ing how you live in that world? Thank you.

Further Reference

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