Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs
obesity and free will


posted on 5th August 2021 by Ria Menon

When we’re lingering at the open fridge door wondering what to eat, are we acting on our own free will? The majority of us believe we make independent choices at our own discretion. But in terms of eating, are our food choices consciously made, or do they operate through our unconscious or subconscious minds?

This is at the centre of the obesity debate: many blame those that are overweight for not having the ‘mental strength’ to control their appetites. However, humans are frequently unaware of the allure of certain environmental variables, such as food priming or portions, that are captivating us into consuming more. Our own obliviousness to these stimuli means that many of us refuse to accept we might have less control than we think.

The recent BBC documentary ‘What are we feeding our kids? exposed that the availability of vast quantities of industrialised food has led to a massive increase in obesity in the UK. One kid described their fridge as a ‘black hole’ sucking him in illustrated the power of ultra-processed foods. The programme underlines that the boom in obesity has not been driven so much by a change in human nature but rather in our food environment.

Whilst presenting the documentary, doctor Chris Van Tulleken shifted his 20% ultra-processed diet to 80% and found himself unable to stop eating. Tullenken’s brain changes, after his diet, ‘lit up like an addict’s’. He reported having a 30% increase in his Ghrelin hormone, stimulating appetite, and a big decrease in his leptin hormone, which makes us feel full.

None of us are in control of the hormones our brains release, and most of us remain uninformed about how they work. This reinforces ‘the determinist perspective’, supporting the idea that we are not fully making our own choices. The food industry profits from this play on our unconscious minds.

What makes this particularly pernicious is that our capitalist society spouts a hypocritical double standard. Whilst the food industry pushes obesity-driving foods, adverts for fashion and beauty continue to push us to remain stick thin.

Food priming through advertising is another factor working against us. ‘Priming’ is a psychological effect in which exposure to a stimulus increases desire. An experiment conducted by Psychologist Jennifer Harris on how food choices might be silently relegated to the unconscious found that children who watch food ads on TV ate a shocking 45% more snacks than those who watched non-food ads.

Anyone who has driven passed McDonalds’ golden arches and suddenly found themselves hungry will have experienced how our bodies physically react to visual stimuli. Frequently displayed food symbols, alongside the display of special bulk deals, produce a multitude of priming signals in our brains which can elicit subconscious desires and actions to eat more than we would otherwise.

Then comes the burden of money. Perhaps one of the most telling eye-opening facts from Tulleken’s documentary was that healthy foods, like fruit and veg, are double the price per 100 calories than less healthy foods. No surprise then that 57% of calories consumed by the whole UK population are ultra-processed.

So, why is this relevant now? One in every 4 adults and 1 in every 5 children struggle with obesity. We cannot blame ourselves anymore: the truth is we are not completely liable for our eating habits. The head of Leon, Henry Dimbleby, published his proposals for a National Food Strategy this summer that the government is due to respond to in the autumn. We cannot afford not to act.

One option being explored by the government is to introduce regular school weigh-ins in England. This will do more harm than good, risking the negative impact on children’s mental health, risking a rise in bullying, and potentially triggering eating disorders.

In the government’s latest proposal, they claim that ‘empowering everyone with the right information to make healthier choices’ could be a clear solution, backing the free will stance. They also claim that ‘giving everyone a fair deal’ and ‘shaping the marketing to our children’ need to be implemented. Despite these positive words, action is yet to be taken. Whether the government is prepared to stand up to powerful multinational food corporations to deliver meaningful change remains to be seen.

Our society needs less of this blaming culture and more support to help everyone through this epidemic. Too many people are struggling with food choices and are misled into believing it is 100% their fault, when in reality, it is clearly not. To truly deliver change we need education, the reduction of vast quantities of industrialised food, increased affordability of healthier food and restrictions on food priming for children. Think before you blame someone for something that is not fully in their control.

This post was by Ria Menon, a Global Futures intern studying history, politics and psychology at A-Level. She feels passionately about ending global social injustices and believes that a deeper psychological understanding can help aid this.

Title photo credit thanks to Thomas Kelley at Unsplash.