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Want To Live Longer? Be More Conscientious! Or Can “Spot Education” Work To Increase Produce Consumption?

We have had 5-a-Day, Five-a-Day the Color Way and, now, Fruits & Veggies — More Matters. We have salad bars and school lunch programs, WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers, food desert programs and Farmer’s Market programs; we have had the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at one time and more recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all preaching the benefits of produce. The First Lady of the United States stands with the industry in promoting increased consumption through the Let’s Move campaign. 

The statistics on fruit and vegetable consumption are not particularly high quality, but the best information we have is that very young children are showing small increases in consumption, whereas teenagers are showing declines in consumption, as are adult males, and most other groups are flat.

The key question is why?

Anyone who has met Elizabeth Pivonka, the President at the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation, knows she is both competent and committed. Indeed, from Michelle Obama on down, the country is full of competent and committed advocates for increased fruit and vegetable consumption, so why the failure to nudge consumption?

The common answer is to identify the problem as a lack of resources. And without a doubt, Dr. Pivonka and the public health community could surely do more if they had the financial resources of the soft drink or snack food industry.

Indeed, one main reason for the failure of the proposal to develop a national fruit and vegetable mandatory promotion program — along the lines of the Got Milk? Campaign — was the conviction among many in the trade that no such program would bring us even close to the dollar amounts needed to increase consumption or counter big consumer packaged goods companies.

Yet it may be that a focus on specific interventions to boost produce consumption misses the point entirely.

Such thoughts come to mind after reading a US News & World Report article on research Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin detailed in their book The Terman Project, which closely followed 1,500 children born about 1910 from the age of roughly 11 years old throughout their lives. The title of the article is Want to Live a Long Time? Pay Attention:

‘The best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness — the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person,’ according to the two professors (he at the University of California — Riverside, and she at La Sierra University). ‘Conscientiousness … also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood.’…

The book presents three reasons why conscientious people live longer:

1. They are more likely to obey the rules, protecting their health and not engaging in risky behaviors such as smoking or driving without a seat belt. If a doctor tells them to take a medicine, they take every prescribed dose.

2. ‘Conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits,’ they found. ‘It appears likely that conscientious and unconscientious people have different levels of certain chemicals in their brains.’

3. ‘The most intriguing reason conscientious people live longer is that having a conscientious personality leads you into healthier situations and relationships,’ the research concluded. ‘They find their way to happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work situations.’…

Now, the good and bad news about how conscientious you are is that you can change your personality, but you can’t invent a new one overnight. The highly conscientious people in the Terman study had little clue that such behavior would be associated with living a very long life. They behaved this way in their everyday lives because it came naturally.

‘It doesn’t matter how many New Year’s resolutions you make,’ the book said. ‘In fact, rapid and pervasive changes are usually quickly abandoned by anyone undertaking them. Lasting adjustments happen with smaller, but progressive, steps.’

In other words, longevity is not typically experienced because people learn some particular clever trick or are taught some individually valuable piece of information; rather longevity is a consequence of certain habits of mind and behavior which translate into wise conduct.

Put another way, whether because of intelligence, “chemicals in their brains”, good parenting or some other reason, certain people are able to A) Hear and understand the messages society sends out about what behavior is beneficial — whether finishing school or exercising, engaging only in safer sexual behavior, avoiding drugs and tobacco or eating healthy, and B) Moderate their behavior by controlling their passions and deferring gratification.

It is this one/two punch — being able to understand what would be beneficial and being able to act on this information that causes success — at least statistically speaking.

Whether it is possible to “spot inform” is questionable. In other words, what are the chances that individuals who won’t wear seat belts, insist on smoking, have unprotected sex with strangers, etc., are somehow going to be punctilious regarding their consumption of fruits and vegetables because of promotion and education?

It is common experience that traits group. Many years ago, when John Bayliss was running trade marketing for Chiquita, the company hired this incipient Pundit and the sainted Stan Silverzweig to travel from retailer to retailer to meet with Vice Presidents of Produce and their teams to help the group with personal development, trend analysis and strategic planning. In general, our task was to support the produce VPs in making their operations world class.

Each student is aware of the hardships of writing a thesis statement

What John didn’t ask us to do was anything to specifically help the retailers more effectively sell bananas. When asked why, he explained that there were no retailers in America that were simply horrible retailers and ran horrible produce departments but did a great job with bananas. In fact, the retailers who ran the best overall operation typically did the best job with bananas. If we could help improve the overall produce operation, execution on bananas — Chiquita’s bread-and-butter product — would also improve.

If the paradigm represented by The Longevity Project is correct, it does not bode well for industry and public health efforts based on health. It implies that getting out such messages will be well received and integrated by a certain percentage of the population — almost all of whom have almost surely heard the message by now — and ignored by the rest.

To reach the rest, a prudent health message wouldn’t be effective. Instead, produce would have to be promoted in a way that would appeal to those indifferent to or unable to act upon a prudent message.

This might involve decadent desserts, lots of tie-ins with cocktails, certainly promotion of taste and flavor.

Maybe all our efforts to increase consumption are for naught because we are not offering a message that resonates with those for whom health promotion is a bore, and the pursuit of health is a restraint on indulgence they are unwilling or unable to countenance.

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