Changing America’s Diet: Creating Tech that Reframes our Food Fears

Why don’t people act “rationally” about their food choices, even when educated on the steps to improve their lives? The answer is actually pretty rational: they’re afraid. Our innate psychological fears correspond to our food fears, and are the obstacles to long term dietary change.

We face an epidemic of preventable diseases. One third of the American population is prediabetic. Without weight loss, 15–30% of them will develop type 2 diabetes within 5 years. There is a simple existing solution to prevent or delay onset, but as with most diet related chronic diseases, many face a challenge making the dietary changes needed to successfully ward off a disease that can cause blindness, kidney failure, stroke, and heart disease.

Current technological approaches are all speaking to our conscious selves, but it is in the subconscious where the energy of fear can be transformed into positive curiosity — and technology can do that by creating food experiences that offer antidotes to fears: confidence, ease, and joy.

WHY FEAR MATTERS. The energy of fear is powerful, triggering the fight, flight, and freeze response. We are all controlled by 5 fears: ego-death, separation, loss of autonomy, mutilation and extinction.

Two of these fears, Fear of Mutilation and Fear of Extinction, are highly motivating, but long term. They want you to change your diet — i.e. few people want to lose a gallbladder from fatty food consumption or die from eating a peanut!

The other three short term and often low grade fears keep us committed to the status quo. They are constantly being triggered, which becomes an obstacle to success in many ways. In the realm of food choices, they encourage us to make what seem like irrational choices to simple dilemmas.

I SUCK, THIS FOOD SUCKS, LET’S ORDER PIZZA! Fear of the Ego Death Messages on nutrition and wellness reiterate one point: you are not fine the way you are, change is necessary. This message plays into your ego, which fears failure, self-disapproval, and humiliation.

In the kitchen, this acts out in many ways. The fear of making the “wrong” food choice: not knowing if a food is healthy or will taste good. Or the fear of being judged: cooking food poorly and the pressure to please anyone eating it (nevermind also dealing with their reaction: “this sucks”).

Current technology plays into the ego too. It’s why we don’t log “slips” in food diaries or don’t open the healthy eating app when we want to cheat. The options presented are too binary, and place judgement on our choices and impulses, rather than being gentle with where the mind is today.

REALLY, YOU DON’T WANT MY HOMEMADE PIE? Fear of Separation Trouble maintaining a diet at social events can be boiled down to fear of separation, which is also a fear of rejection, loss of connectedness or not being respected. It may sound extreme, but consider how many times you’ve been offered a piece of cake again after turning it down. “You don’t want any, are you sure?” If you are one of the few people who has never had that experience, ask a vegetarian how many times they’ve been offered a hamburger.

Not having an alternative option heightens the challenge: no diabetic friendly dessert, no dairy free option at a pizza party. In a culture where we have our eyes on what and how everyone else is eating, there is a clear visual separation between you and the group because of your diet or philosophy.

With food, it can also mean fear of separation from specific foods that one has become attached to. None of grandma’s Sunday night cheese sauce? Changing my bacon and egg breakfast ritual?

Some turn to online communities for support, but those feel binary too. Even in places where flexibility is encouraged, it seems to be within particular parameters. One is either a foodie or a hard core [choose your food identity]. Many people pride themselves on their food identities, and trying to get other people to adhere or convert to that diet plays into the fear of separation on both sides.

I’D RATHER DIE THAN LIVE WITHOUT CHEESE! Fear of Loss of Autonomy. Forbidden foods are all the more tempting, and curiosity gets the best of us — just look at Eve’s bite from the forbidden apple or kids eating dirt to know that human desire to taste new food is innate.

“Eat this, not that” can feel restricting, overwhelming, or like we’re being constrained by circumstances beyond our control. Ever walk into a doctor’s office and walk out with a list of things to avoid? Any loss of control over what you eat, or what people tell you not to eat, can be experienced as a loss of autonomy. The internal rebel is provoked, leading to a “cheating” cycle.

People are afraid that they will lose their sense of self, or all the pleasures of eating when they have to make sweeping changes to their diet. We limit ourselves when we think, “nothing hits the spot like [insert favorite food]”. The fear that one will never be satisfied again, is incredibly powerful, even paralyzing.

Because of fear, the long terms results of eating well can be overridden by the short term pleasures of connection, rejection of being told what to do, and fear that one would fail anyway. The fear / shame dynamic gets in the way of the belief one is capable of changing for the better.

In combination, the immediacy of these three fears can override our largest, but more distant, fear: Fear of Extinction (death).

It isn’t until a sense of urgency overrides the rest of the system, and the likelihood of death or mutilation seem more imminent, that the subconscious willingly abandons food associated fears in the aforementioned three areas. This is why people diagnosed with lung cancer are more successful at quitting smoking. In chronic illness, like diabetes, where the immediacy may be diminished, the more tangible fears can still prevail.

HOW TECHNOLOGY CAN TRANSFORM FEAR. Transforming the energy of fear into curiosity is achievable — and technology can do that by creating food experiences that counter fear with confidence, ease, and joy.

Modern psychological theories advise acceptance when first confronted with fear, and technology can employ the same principle. The key is to change the way you think about a stressor, so that it’s no longer a stressor. We think about food changes rigidly, and when technology reinforces that rigidity, it works against us. The technology should allow for the mental flexibility that’s to be encouraged when creating habit change.

We need to meet people where their habits are and engage them at their level of preparedness for change. If a person is used to eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for lunch, telling them to cook sprouted lentil pasta with olive oil or cashew cream instead sets them up for failure. The food is inaccessible, requires more effort, and has a distinctly different taste and texture.

At my company, ingredient1, we refer to this concept as the “Mac & Cheese Scale,” which factors in what a person is used to tasting, time spent, and skill needed to prepare the food. Rather than saying “what you are eating is bad,” it gently introduces, new textures, tastes, and skills over time.

Our first step towards tackling this challenge is removing negative messaging about ingredients, products, or specific food choices. We empower users to set a flexible dietary framework, showing what they can eat through that lens, and promoting virality and validation of food products through social recommendations.

Rather than recommending 1 large sweeping change for a given food item, we accept the current behavior and create a series of short term successes to shift people’s habits and play into their natural sense of curiosity.

A person eating Kraft may reluctantly try Annie’s, and if the experience is positive, then they may be a little more open to Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta. Their mind, having been opened to the idea that Quinoa is actually good, is more willing to be “even more adventurous” — but this typically doesn’t begin until the 2nd or 3rd discovery experience.

One should be made to feel that “they have discovered” something, instead of being taught or forced to eat something for a better outcome. We can create space to engage what we love about food, preserve those feelings and apply them to new and healthy options. Fueling change by removing the negative associations and judgments we have about our guilty pleasures makes us open to options equally satisfying, and better for you.

Providing people with the feeling of control and dignity of choice, with relevant educational experiences built in along the path, opens the door to successfully changing long term eating routines. Technology can diffuse the fear that gets in the way of our rational thinking, and good intentions, promoting the mental flexibility that will ultimately empower successful dietary change.

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