Getting Nagged About Food

June 16, 2022
People think they eat better than they really do.

Some time ago I read about a service that will evaluate your food choices in real time. You text them a photo or description of what you’re about to eat, and they let you know immediately how healthy or unhealthy the food is.

When I read about this, I thought, Who pays to be nagged about food?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. But apparently a lot of people need some nagging, if we are to believe a new USDA study.

Researchers asked participants to self-evaluate the healthiness of their diets: excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. They then recorded all their food choices for the following 24 hours.

The results were what you might expect. Some 85% of the more than 9,700 participants were deemed to be off-base in their self-evaluations, mostly because they overestimated how healthy their food choices are. "They perceived their diet as very good when in fact their diet was poor," the lead researcher said. The only ones whose self-evaluations were consistently accurate were the ones who rated their diets as “poor.”

This is in one sense unsurprising, since we all tend to be the heroes of our own stories. Most of us tend to think of ourselves as smarter, harder-working and better-looking than we really are, something that strikes me every time I unexpectedly face a reflection and wonder for an instant who that old man is.

But even though the results may be unsurprising, they do make it clear how hard it will be to make most people change their eating habits. If you already think you’re eating healthy, why should you change?

The upside is that deep down, most people know the basics of nutrition – more whole grains, fruits and veggies, less fat and sugar – even if they’re deluded about how well they’re following them, according to a dietitian who reviewed the study. The question then becomes how to get them to actually change their eating habits.

The key, said the dietitian, is not to “go on a diet,” because that’s something you can go off at any time. Instead, implement incremental long-term changes in eating habits: "Change your mindset and, instead, say 'I am taking these small steps to improve eating in a way that will benefit my health.'"

In other words, listen to your inner food nag. And it won’t cost you a penny.

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