The (Not So) Crazy Link Between Traffic Congestion & Your Eating Habits

What causes traffic jams, we’ve learned, is the same thing that keeps you from eating healthy. Here’s how to beat it.

Where I live, in Portland, there’s a traffic problem. Despite our bike loving, transit happy people, studies rank our traffic as 9th worst in the U.S.Years back, I had to commute in it every day. I was miserable and, as I’d sit in stop and go traffic for an hour or more, I’d ask myself, “Damn it; they’re always doing construction and adding more lanes! Why doesn’t the traffic get any better?”I’m not the only one who asked. Two economists—Matthew Turner (University of Toronto) and Gilles Duranton (University of Pennsylvania)—wondered the same thing. So, they commissioned a study to find out.

What they learned was pretty amazing: Adding more lanes for cars to drive on did nothing to decrease congestion. But here’s what’s almost unbelievable: removing lanes did nothing to increase it.

Basically, it doesn’t matter how many roads you build. Traffic congestion in a city will stay the same regardless what you do. If there are roads, more people will drive on them. If there aren’t, they’ll pick other forms of transportation or just stay home.

Ready for one more nearly unbelievable claim? The reason for this is the same reason you struggle to eat healthy.

Here’s what you can learn from this traffic study about building smart eating habits.

Induced Demand: It Makes You Fat

Ever gone to the grocery store to stock up thinking you’ll be set for ages, only to find you run out again faster than you expected? Personally, I have this problem with ice cream. I’ll buy a gallon of it thinking I can ration it out and use it over the course of a month. Instead, it’s gone by the next week. Whoops.

If you’ve experienced that, you’ve experienced the same thing traffic engineers do when they beef up a highway system only to find it in gridlock again almost immediately.

It’s called induced demand, and it gums up your streets the same way it gums up your arteries.

To put it simply, induced demand is a funny thing that happens where, as you get more of something, you consume more of it.

You’d think if a street with two lanes was always in gridlock, adding lanes would fix the problem. It doesn’t. Instead, the street becomes more attractive and, pretty soon, more cars drive on it. Back to square one.

The same thing happens when I buy ice cream. I think to myself, “I ate that pint pretty quickly. I’ll get a gallon this time and it’ll last 8 times as long.” Wishful thinking! Having more ice cream just makes me want it more, and I end up eating it faster and faster. The only thing to snap me back to sanity is the realization I’ve dropped another loop on my belt.

How To Beat Induced Demand And Create Healthy Habits

There’s not a lot you can do about traffic jams—that takes a whole community. But there’s one simple and effective hack you can use to fix poor eating choices quickly.

The most important thing to do when you’re trying to clean up your diet and eat healthier is to flip the proportions of food you keep around to avoid binge eating the wrong things.

If having a gallon of ice cream means eating a gallon of ice cream and then going back to the store for another (and let’s be honest, it does…), you can stop this madness by buying smaller portions.

Your economic brain will try to stop you. It’ll say, “Buy the bigger one; it’s cheaper and will last longer.” But now you know better. You can safely buy the smaller one (or none at all). And plenty of research proves having a biteof something sweet is just as satisfying as stuffing piles of it down your face.

If you have the habit of eating fast food because it’s easy and accessible on the way home from work, try changing your route home instead of directly confronting the golden arches. With less fast food available, your demand for it will also fall.

The best part is harnessing induced demand doesn’t only work for eliminating bad habits. It can reinforce a good one, too.

You get hungry every day, but what you choose to eat will depend on what’s easy to grab. If there’s less TV dinner and more fresh meats and vegetables, you’ll eat those instead. No beer in the house means you’ll only drink it when you go out instead of with every meal.

Don’t worry too much if you try this and it doesn’t work at first. Keep going even if you fill the fridge with vegetables that wilt as you go out for fast food every day.

Your brain has many functions to it, and one is to regulate your economics. The guilt of watching good foods spoil as you fill yourself with bad foods will eventually force you to re-evaluate your choices and do the economical thing: eat your vegetables! Instant willpower not required.

Trust your brain to do the right thing when you put the right choices in front of it!

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

If you have a bad eating habit you want to break—or a good one you want to reinforce—you can harness the power of induced demand in the next 10 minutes to help you along the way.

First, pick something you want to eat less of, and find a way to limit your ability to reach it. Then, pick something you want to eat more of, and find a way to make sure it’s always available. That takes just a moment of planning and action, and it gives your brain what it needs to make the best choices once your habits take over and put you on autopilot.

Additional Sources:What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse
Hat tip to Steve Kamb for inspiring me to think about my health a little more.
Title Photo Credit: flickr