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April 5, 2019

Chris WhartonThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Chris Wharton, assistant dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at ASU's College of Health Solutions.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: During my master's program and PhD I was focused on basic nutrition science and nutrition communication. I wasn’t really thinking about food systems. Then I went off to do my postdoc at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (now housed at the University of Connecticut). The basement of the building I was in was home to the Yale Sustainable Food Project, so I would run into those folks in the hall, and their demonstration garden was just up the way.

I started realizing that the food system drove so many things related to nutrition and diet, like the food environment — what choices can people even make? I could communicate to people what the science said, but the food system really drove all of it. I got a much broader view, and I became very excited about the co-mingling of the issues of health and sustainability simultaneously through food.

Once I got to ASU, I shifted my focus away from policy and got interested in local food systems. I started working with local farmers, small-scale farmers, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture. The goal is to better connect low-income households with local food outlets which then both improves the marketplace for small-scale farmers and gets healthy food to the people who needed it the most.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: How can we save the world through health behavior change? I don’t want to have to rely on the government for action on climate change, for example. But there’s incredible agency in a consumer society that drives a lot of environmental impact for behavior changes that result in improved health and a better environment.

Specifically, I’m looking at food waste behaviors and plant-based diets. How can we help people reimbue value in food so it becomes less easy to waste? And how can we help people understand that plant-based diets aren’t a threat to athletic performance and in fact can be an incredible boon to health in multiple ways? In a recent study we looked at vegans and vegetarians engaged in endurance and resistance training, and as long as there’s enough protein available, whether animal or plant based, people can still perform and get stronger.

We also just finished a study, which is awaiting peer-review, that shows that the more restrictive people were, in terms of a plant-based diet, the happier they are. Which is really shocking to us, because we hypothesized that when people restricted their diets, they would sacrifice short-term happiness for long-term happiness. What we found was nearly the exact opposite of that. Vegans were the happiest in the moment, significantly more so than omnivores. So we’re doing follow up work on that.

All of this is to say that I think you can leverage health behaviors for physical and mental health improvements while also reducing the impact on the environment.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: One of the greatest problems related to the food system, in terms of an existential crisis, is that we’re running out of phosphorus. People aren’t talking about it very much. We don’t have much mineable phosphate rock left, so we need to recover what’s being lost through the food system. Part of that is at the consumer level, with food going down the garbage disposal. So if there is a way to recover the phosphorus from a water treatment facility, and some places have started to do that, we can bring it back into the agriculture process —  that could be a big solution.

Something else that I think is really important is the idea that we’re fundamentally and wholly doing behavior change all wrong, and we have been forever. We need to shift how we design behavior change strategies so that people can be successful in it, because when people try to change and be healthier, like losing weight or eating better, they almost inevitably fail. People stick to it for a while but then it becomes hard, and failure rates are high.

We spend billions on health behavior change research to basically no avail. Here’s the reason: we take this baby-steps approach to behavior change, and that’s not working. I think we need to blow everything up and change everything dramatically all at once. And there’s evidence to suggest that might be more successful. But it’s hard to do research on this because to do research you have to focus on controlled, small changes to know what is causal. But I think there could be an innovation in our approach that could really have big impact.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: I love everything, except I guess not meat. I think in terms of fuel and nutrition. I’ve been eating a lot of avocados, I’m a recent fan of avocados. They’re very high in fiber, and anything that’s high in fiber is now my favorite food. The whole world has gone crazy for protein, and protein is destroying the world. Really if you want to live a long and healthy life you should be focusing on reducing protein and increasing fiber, dramatically.