Instant Gratification

Obesity reflects bad long-term thinking. Which makes me wonder why I'm not fat

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME; Doughnut: Getty Images

Instant Gratification. Obesity reflects bad long-term thinking. Which makes me wonder why I'm not fat.

Correction Appended: April 29, 2012

Since thin people can't enjoy life, we eke out pleasure by telling fat people how to lose weight, as if they don't know. Cook! Plant a garden! Read this posting of fast-food-menu calories! Buy fresh produce! Bike to work! Do stuff skinny folk would never do.

So I wasn't surprised when two recent studies concluded that obesity isn't reduced by opening supermarkets in poor areas--the so-called food deserts without access to affordable fresh produce that food writer Michael Pollan has railed against and the Obama Administration has funded an initiative to fix. Sure, people can't eat healthy if there isn't a store nearby selling pomegranate seeds and kale. But most obesity isn't caused by a lack of access to affordable produce or time to cook. It's the result of short-term over long-term thinking. Cooking sucks. Eating a salad takes forever. Fast food is delicious, easy, fun, cheap, reliable and can be scarfed down so quickly there isn't time to fight with your family. One Thanksgiving meal does more emotional damage than a lifetime of Wendy's.

The times when I've felt stuck in my life, I've made horrible decisions--avoiding work, blowing deadlines, going on seven dates with a woman during which I watched a movie on her bed and met her parents and yet did not kiss her once, thereby starting, I'm sure, a rumor that I'm either gay or lack a working tongue. And my version of being stuck was hating my Manhattan magazine fact-checking job and living at home with my newly divorced dad, who described the string of women he was dating as "big up top." So, less like being poor and more like being in a 1980s sitcom.

But if you're living in an impoverished community where the future doesn't look like a rewarding adventure and instead requires all your energy to figure out how to get by this month, you're unlikely to focus on activities with long-term benefits such as studying, saving, marriage, being drug-free and spicing up quinoa. In their 1988 paper "A Theory of Rational Addiction," economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy argued that shooting heroin is a logical choice when all you're giving up is a crappy existence. It also explains why so many people do drugs when listening to Phish.

When I ran my theory by Mari Gallagher, the researcher who invented the term food desert, she actually agreed with me. "That's why we don't have to just combat food deserts but jobs deserts, crime and so many other things," she said. She also very nicely implied that I might be a racist right-wing wack job: "I'm hearing some issues and some blame on your part. You're sort of saying, 'You know what, you guys? Your life sucks because you make sucky choices.'" What I was hearing was that someone was sorry she became a researcher.

I asked Charles Duhigg--whose brilliant book The Power of Habit is about how to trick your brain into making better decisions--what a better solution is. He said telling people to eat well so they'll live longer is idiotic. "The No. 1 way not to form a good habit is to say, 'In three months I'm going to look a lot thinner.' There's no way you can say the long-term reward is going to outweigh a sugar rush," he said. "If you see doughnuts on the counter, it will feel really urgent that you need a doughnut. That's your basal ganglia." One proven way of turning people off doughnuts is to talk about basal ganglia.

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