In our fast-texting, quick-thinking, Blink-ing society, Jason Riis talks about slowing down our relationship with food.

At the Edelman Wellness Ignited meet-up on March 26, 2012, Jason riffed on food  intervention and economics for healthy eating. Jason is a professor at Harvard Business School and among his many research interests is how to change culture to morph away from obesity and Type 2 diabetes toward health.

The U.S. is a shopping nation: retail is destination, fun, entertaining, life, for millions of Americans. Jason’s asking what retailers can do about fast and food. This isn’t only about ‘fast food,’ which, of course, is part of the scenario. It’s about thinking slow about food and essentially  re-wiring our personal relationships with food and the choices we make about it. 

In new research based on the must-read book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jason applies the paradigm to how we make decisions on what, and how much, to eat.

Sure, technology can help: reminders can plant healthy messages in our heads, Fooducate and other apps can educate us on nutrition at the point-of-purchase, Twitter can crowdsource calorie estimates via Tweet What You Eat, and self-tracking can help tame our daily calorie intake. But the reality of retail and supply chains — what’s available on store shelves, how food is marketed, and what ingredients go into processed packaged foodstuffs — very often defines What We Buy and Eat.

Kahneman says we make most of our decisions in ways that are automatic, intuitive, emotional. For some decisions, this can be great; for others, not so for our health in the long run. Humans also have slow and reflective thinking systems, taking longer views. But triggering the slow thinking system is tricky, and this is what’s needed to re-wire our relationship with food, Jason argues. He’s testing this in research. 

One experiment involved people eating soup, split into two groups. People were told to eat as much soup as they would like. In one group, a regular soup bowl was filled and people ate until feeling satiated. Another group was seated at a different table where a hidden pipe under the soup bowls continued to fill them, unbeknownst to the soup eaters. This second group with the “bottomless bowls of soup” ate 80% more with the same perceived level of satiation. That’s the fast brain problem, Jason observes.

How do we re-wire ourselves to opt-out of supersizing food? In another experiment, Jason’s team looked at downsizing take-out Chinese food. Consumer research has found that 70% of restaurant customers say they eat too much when they go out to eat.  Jason’s trying to figure out how to do the opposite of supersizing. He asked people if they would like to downsize meals and buy smaller portions; meal portions have grown since the 1970s.

Jason found latent demand for smaller portions. After asking people if they’d like to downsize and save a bit a money, 1 in 3 customers said “yes.” What’s interesting, Jason says, is that nobody spontaneously asked for a smaller portion at the point of ordering. And, fast food restaurants, and indeed all retailers, clearly aren’t set up for slow brian thinking.
The term “downsizing” is too negative, Jason believes. Instead, we should use the term “rightsize.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points: To move toward a slow-thinking food culture  would require a huge mind-shift for business, government and consumers. We built this city, our consumer culture, on more-is-better. For retailers, fast food decision making is the norm. How can healthy food and right-sizing become more salient, more desirable, for the masses of people?

This is not only mind-shift time — it’s a risky proposition, retailers would think. Won’t revenues take a big hit if salty snacks and sugary candy bars stop lining the front-of-store impulse buying rack? 
Who is the brave retailer who will take this on? I can name a few in my local neck of the woods. But they aren’t mega-chains; they’re smaller groups of stores, who know their local customers. 

And they are players in local health ecosystems, neighbors with local hospitals and schools and fellow retailers. 

A Big Question was asked of Jason that gets to a root of the challenge: Look at the CEO of Pepsico, she asked. You know her board is pressuring her for earnings, yet she’s trying to bring health to Pepsi products. This is a CEO taking a huge risk, but if shareholders don’t see fairly immediate returns, she won’t keep her job. 

As the Supreme Court thinks through this week the individual mandate for health insurance embodied in the Affordable Care Act, we are reminded of the nature of public goods, including public health. Some against the ACA and mandate say the government would be getting into our business in a way unintended by our Founding Fathers. Others of us understand the actuarial reality of bringing more people, healthy and unhealthy, old and young, together under one umbrella so that health costs can be better managed. 

Do Americans believe in a new-new Public Health for the nation? If so, it’s time to think slowly, eat mindfully, and vote with your feet and wallet when you shop for food. We can buy more locally sourced food; less processed foods and, if we do eat them, choose those with fewer ingredients; and, support those Big Food companies and retailers who are trying to do the healthy thing for consumers.