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17 June 2009

Mindful Eating/The Irish Times

The Irish Times Healthplus/June 2009

Mindful Choosing

The first time I read about Brian Wansink’s Campbell’s tomato soup experiment, my reaction was to feel distinctly queasy, followed by a distinct loss of appetite.
What did Mr Wansink do to make me feel this way?
He simply sat people down in front of a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup, and told them to eat as much as they wanted. In “Nudge”, their witty book about how humans exercise choices, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler take up the story of an experiment they call a “masterpiece”:
“Unbeknownst to them, the soup bowls were designed to refill themselves (with empty bottoms connected to machinery beneath the table). No matter how much soup subjects ate, the bowl never emptied. Many people just kept eating, not paying attention to the fact that that they were really eating a great deal of soup, until the experiment was (mercifully) ended”.
Sunstein and Thaler call this sort of behaviour “mindless choosing”. Their conclusion is devastating: “Eating turns out to be one of the most mindless activities we do”.
So, we know the cola is packed with numerous spoonfuls of sugar, but we drink it anyway. We know the breakfast cereal is as salty as seawater, but we eat it anyway. When someone asks if they can supersize that order for us, we say “Sure, go ahead”, even though we know it will do us no good whatsoever. We open our mouths and, it seems, we switch off our brains.
Where does this mindless choosing get us? “Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese”, Thaler and Sunstein tell us.
But if mindless choosing can get us to a bad place where our health is out of control, it seems to me that we are, in fact, headed to a much worse place altogether, thanks to switching off our brains when it comes to food.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to a bunch of food producers at a convention in Northern Ireland, middle-aged men for the most part, the sort of people who might be called “strong farmers”, men who rear beef and sheep and have good farms.
They were, without exception, the most demoralized and bitter group of people I have ever encountered. Why? Because they were part of a morally bankrupt food system, a food system where what they were paid for what they produced was controlled entirely by big supermarket chains.
Their relationship to the supermarkets wasn’t one of client and customer. It was, instead, a relationship of master and slave, and they knew they were the slaves.
Strong farmers. Weak slaves.
Two years on from that day, and I see photographs in The Irish Times of potato farmers storming into supermarket management meetings to protest at purchasing policies that are leaving them with no future. We read of retailers demanding cost reductions of up to 40%. 40%!
How much is your pay packet down this month? Just imagine if it contracted by 40%. Could you survive? Of course not.
Kate Carmody of the Irish Organic Farmers & Growers Association is quite clear about the choices we need to make when we decide what is to be put on the table:
“If we want a vibrant local economy we must support it by our purchasing decisions. Most of us can afford to do this if we choose, even in the recession”, says Ms Carmody.

“Buying seasonal, local, organic food is quite simply better for us, our environment and our economy. When we shop, we can all make a small but significant difference to pulling the country out of its current difficulty and supporting our friends and neighbours in retaining their jobs. The choice is ours”.

What Ms Carmody is proposing is the opposite of Thaler and Sunstein’s mindless choosing. We might, then, call it “Mindful Choosing”, the recognition that our choices, and our mindfulness about the food chains that link us all together, have direct consequences not just for our health, but also for our present and future wealth.

To be mindful is to take thought or care about what you do. With food, the issue is actually much bigger than that bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup that never empties. If our mindlessness goes no further than considering the cost of our basket of groceries in a supermarket, then we shall soon see all around us an agricultural and social wasteland. Every farmer will be like the farmers I met two years ago in Northern Ireland.

Instead, through mindfulness, our eating, the final act in the chain that begins with sunshine and photosynthesis, that works its way through the work of the farmer and the producer, and which ends with the skill of the cook and the appetite of the eater, can be the most mindful thing we do, each and every day. “The choice is ours”, says Kate Carmody. Indeed it is.