Is the healthy choice the easy choice?

The other day I was at my local supermarket and while I was there I scanned many baskets and carts, just to see what people were buying. I saw a mom with two young kids in the produce section loading her cart with tons of fresh veggies and fruits. Hopefully she continued around the perimeter of there store for some meat, fish, and eggs. While I was at the register I observed a second lady loading the conveyor belt with boxes and bags of frozen food-like products; Hungry Man dinners, Tyson frozen-chicken, Lean Cuisines, pizza bites, whatever else you can think of that’s not good to eat. I thought about how I would feel after a week, or even a day, or eating all of those processed, void-of-nutrition foods. Ugh. What is the difference between these two women? What factors are at play which cause them to take such different paths during the same task: food shopping. 

Do yourself a favor, throw it all away. 

I’ve been out of the academia loop for almost two years now. Sometimes I miss being a total geek…sometimes. Lately there’s been talk in the gym and on the Facebook thread about what we’re eating as a society. The good ol’ U.S. of A. We even had a brief chat in the gym the other day about how much more time, planning, and effort it takes to cook at home and make healthy meals; making the choice to buy, prepare, and cook healthy foods is not easy. So I want to get a little bit geeky on you, throw out some food for though (pun totally intended), and get some feedback about what’s really going on in this sick, over-fat, metabolically-deranged country of ours.

Obesity is a disease which now affects approximately 33.8 percent of adults in the United States and according to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 19.6 percent of children in this country aged six to eleven years are now obese. These are just the obesity stats, even more of us are overweight, carrying too much body fat around. The problem transcends generations as evidence reveals children who are overweight or obese are likely to be overweight or obese as adults. This obesity epidemic in the United States is a result of complex multilevel, multidimensional web of behavioral, environmental, and social factors. For individuals, obesity is the outcome of energy and hormonal imbalances; too much of the wrong foods compounded by not-enough physical activity. Many believe that people are just lazy and that is why they eat crappy food and don’t work out; solely placing the responsibility for health choices on individuals. But behaviors, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, are influenced by circumstances and characteristics of the environments in which people live, work, and play. So partly it is up to individuals to make good choices, and that comes from knowing what healthy choices are (education) and actually choosing health, but it’s also partly about creating environments where easy choices are healthy choices; setting people up for success and better quality of life. 

Obesity Prevalence in US Adults 1985 and 2008. Whoa.

Public health professionals are focused on creating programs and policies which aim to affect populations. The goal of many of these programs is to educate populations about making healthy choices when it comes to food and physical activity. Is education what we need? Or do we already know how to live a healthy lifestyle and are just not doing it? Public health policies enforce behaviors by restricting access to unhealthy things and/or by making it easier to choose health. An example of this would be taxing sugary beverages (or banning them – see the controversy in NYC) or requiring that school-aged kids get at least 60 minutes of time to play each day. Lots of political action is underway as a result of the alarming rate of childhood obesity. It’s a start, but who knows if it will actually create positive outcomes. Some grocery stores have implemented point-of-purchase labeling systems to help consumers choose healthier options.

Ever see this in a Hannaford store? It’s called the “Guiding Stars” program and it rates foods based on caloric and nutritional content as set by the USDA. If you know where I stand when it comes to food you can correctly assume that I do not agree with the USDA nutritional guidelines. However, I do believe that systems like this can be helpful and are a step in the right direction when it comes to educating people and influencing their purchases. 

We’re in a tough spot. Based on population-level statistics it is clear that individuals are not making healthy choices. What do we do? Shall we continue creating educational programs that aim to give people knowledge about healthy living? They don’t seem to work very well. Or do we create policies that make it more difficult for people to access unhealthy things or easier to make healthy choices? There is a lot of resistance when people feel as if their freedoms are being restricted. Rugged individualism, anyone? I think there must be a combination of both education and political action. Programs need build people’s knowledge base, but also give opportunities to put that knowledge to use. Although it would be awesome, I don’t think we’ll ever see the total abolishment of junk food, so we’ll have to continue to boldly walk past it in the grocery store. But how do we influence others to do the same? How do we get parents to stop feeding their kids sugary snacks and drinks? How do we influence adults to start eating better protein and more vegetables? It’s a daunting task. I don’t have the answers. 

I choose to lead by example and create demand for healthy choices; advocating for health and helping people to change their behavior any way I can. I know I am making an impact in my community and that means a lot. There is much to be said for grassroots movements that occur in small communities. Small groups of people changing their behaviors, creating demand for change, expecting it from those around them, and influencing change throughout a broader community. I see this every day at The Fort CrossFit. Dozens of people through the door, committed to make their lives better and, in doing so, influencing others.

To be a champion in anything, whether it’s a sport, motherhood, your daily workout, your job, or life in general, you must be willing to put in the time and energy; caring about the details and creating positive thoughts which aim to bring you success. Take a moment to think about how your actions create a ripple effect around you. What are some of the barriers you face when trying to make healthy choices? How have you found ways to work around these barriers?

Please post comments here or on Facebook. Cheers!


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