A Healthful Nudge

An Introduction by Lilian:
I invited KJ Thomas, a colleague at Harvard who comes to our meditation group regularly, to write a blog about his conversion from a soda drinker to a healthy beverage drinker. His story shows us the profound impact our surroundings have on our food and beverage choices. When we think about mindful eating, sometimes we only reflect on our personal food and beverage decisions. I invite you to also consider how we can change our surroundings to make healthy and mindful eating an easier choice for us all. Speak up at work and ask your cafeteria manager to ditch the sugary sodas. What other ideas do you have to nudge us all in a healthier direction?

You have to be carefully taught. I was in the habit of drinking one 12 oz can of Coca-Cola every day. I even bought a box of these cans at the grocery store, so they’d always be on hand. Each coke has almost 10 teaspoons of sugar, virtually no nutrients, and tastes basically like cough syrup. So why the craving? I had developed an addiction to the sugar and the caffeine.  On a subtler level, I was also addicted to what Coca-Cola had come to mean to me.  To drink it, advertisements had gradually persuaded me, is to be all-American, care free, full of vitality and well-being. Never mind that I don’t actually feel that way after drinking it. Quite the contrary, an hour after drinking Coke I often feel drained and a bit shaky. It hardly encourages good digestion. This was a bad habit I had been quietly indulging, on and off, for decades.

Then something happened. Working at Harvard Medical School, I went to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) cafeteria for lunch. The HSPH cafeteria doesn’t sell sugary drinks in cans or bottles. Instead of a Coke, I had a Polar Black Cherry Seltzer water. Zero calories, naturally fruit-flavored without any sugar, and actually delicious and refreshing. Huh. How about that?

I made the switch. The next time I went to the grocery store, instead of Coke, I got Seltzer water. And I haven’t turned back. I still occasionally drink a Coke, but it is not the habit it used to be, and I’m certain that in the coming months I will stop drinking it altogether.

Change happens in many different ways. Very often it comes because we get a little nudge in the right direction. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have explored this in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The authors describe how the presentation of a decision often affects the outcome. The School of Public Health cafeteria had consciously used this “nudge” approach in shaping people’s choices about nutrition by confining sugary drinks to the less popular soda fountain, while prominently displaying a wide variety of refreshing sugar free beverages for people to try. 

This approach has had an important and positive impact on my health. And it makes me wonder … what other nudges am I getting, to make positive changes in my life? I plan on keeping an eye out for these positive influences, and then experimenting with seemingly small changes. 

- KJ Thomas

Photo by Scrap Pile