One reason there’s an obesity epidemic is that humans evolved in a world of caloric scarcity: getting enough food wasn’t easy for most of the population for most of human history. It still isn’t easy for many, many food-insecure people.
However, the people who are food secure find themselves in an evolutionary conundrum: our instincts tell us to eat a lot whenever we can because there may not be food later. If we follow our instincts, we get fat. To stay fit, we have to make an unnatural choice: stop eating even though there are still calories available.
This conundrum is relatively new. We’ve had decades to get used to calorie-convenient things like supermarkets, fast food, frozen food, microwaves, and food delivery. We’ve also had decades of fitness gurus telling us to exercise (the first one I remember was Jack LaLanne) and diet after diet, all trying to help us fight our instincts.
Someday, medical science may develop ways to tweak our metabolisms to crave less food as easily as we use glasses to tweak our vision: wouldn’t that be nifty?
The second paradox of choice
Unlike cheap calories, we haven’t had all that long to get used to cheap information. The commercially available internet has only existed since the 1990s. Social Media became popular with Myspace 15 years ago. Smartphones, which made cheap information available everywhere, started with the iPhone just 12 years ago.
Today, we have to chooseto be B.L.U.E.– bored, lonely, or uncomfortable…ever. Those are unnatural choices! However, choosing to be B.L.U.E. is just as important as choosing to eat less so as not to get fat and die prematurely.
It’s a paradox of choice: we evolved to seek stimulation, social contact, and comfort, but today having those things can be bad for us.
This is not the same as the paradox of choice explored in Barry Schwartz’s celebrated and brilliant book of the same name. Schwartz talks about having so many options that the pleasure you get from making a choice, any choice, is lower than it should be: you have to subtract what economists call opportunity costs from the satisfaction of making the choice.
Schwartz’s paradigmatic example involves him going to buy new blue jeans and becoming despondent when he has to navigate among skinny, easy fit, relaxed fit, stone-washed, pre-distressed, et cetera… when earlier is…