The foods you eat can make you sick or heal you. They can keep you young or age you. Of the top causes of death and disability in the United States, the majority can be escalated or discouraged by different foods, from cancer to heart disease to diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease.
In the United States, it’s common knowledge that obesity is a growing problem. Everyone knows that health is tied to nutrition, and everyone knows someone that has tried to deal with these problems. If you’ve ever known anyone who tried losing weight, or if you yourself have ever tried losing weight, you know how incredibly difficult it can be.
From time to time, disease organizations have awareness campaigns to make sure that more people know and understand the issues, but nutrition is an issue that needs no more awareness. It is everywhere you turn. The television is inundated with news stories about the issues, and every other TV ad is someone selling some brand new diet or weight loss product of some sort. These ads also appear in conjunction with advertisements for fancy new types of food, with “healthier” items being offered at every restaurant and grocery. Every aisle of the grocery store is filled with new products touted as “natural” “organic” “gluten-free” “high fiber” and a long and lengthening list of additional nutritional adjectives, some of which actually mean something. There is no end to the parade of health gurus or nutritional books being published, and yet with all of this coverage, all of this awareness, and all of this effort, the societal problems around dietary health continue to grow.
Somewhere between the baby boomers and generation X, life expectancy in the U.S. is expected to, for the first time in the history of the country, stop increasing. The progression that has seen every generation grow up more prosperous, healthier and longer lived than their parents, will end sometime in this period. This all is occurring despite the most modern medical technologies and one of the best healthcare systems in the world. People in the U.S. spend billions of dollars every year on gym memberships, diets, exercise equipment and training. They spend trillions on healthcare.
So why isn’t it working? The only thing more common than diet and nutrition ads are the fingers being pointed. The fast food companies, federal government, schools, agribusinesses, and of course the people. There’s plenty of blame to go around for how and why people are getting sick from the foods they eat, but of course blame hasn’t helped any more than the diets or the trendy health foods. Certainly the best way to help people become healthy isn’t to blame them more.
It’s all about education
But what is there to do, then? One of the first and most important strategies is nutrition education – with ourselves and with our families. The ability to sort through good information and bad, to decipher the nutrition information on the items in the grocery store, and tell the difference between fad diets and healthy lifestyle choices all begins with education. When the problem is one where better choices can make a difference, education is a type of preventive medicine.
This nutrition education starts with the basics – which nutrients promote health and which ones are empty calories. In general, whole foods – that is, foods that are raw, have expiration dates, came from living plants and animals rather than from mechanical or chemical processes – will contain more fiber and nutrients than processed foods. The reason for this isn’t some conspiracy: It’s a simple fact that if you walk down the baking aisle of the grocery store, things like sugar, oil and salt can all sit on a shelf at room temperature for a long period of time. Creating foods that are constituted mostly of these ingredients, makes them longer lasting and cheaper to produce. The result is that many of these foods are essentially empty calories. A diet that is completely made up of these items will result in malnourishment and sickness, in the same way a diet lacking nutrition because it lacks calories will.
Food preparation – a lost art
A second part of nutrition is the skills needed to put the food together. When a group of people becomes sick, it can help to look at a time when they were healthy to see what changed and if it can be changed back. In the 1970s, 90 percent of the food dollars people spent were used on fresh foods to be prepared at home. In the 70s, less than half of adults were overweight or obese, and the obesity rate for children wasn’t even monitored directly but is estimated to have been under 5 percent.
Today, more than three-quarters of food dollars are spent on fast food or heat-and-serve food for home preparation and the adult obesity rate is nearing 75 percent. The obesity rate for children has also increased dramatically, and is nearing 20 percent. When food was primarily prepared from scratch, people in this country were much healthier. Developing the ability to plan meals, shop for nutritious food, and prepare that food at home are all vital skills that promote health.
Much of the loss of home cooking habits and skills can be traced to people working longer hours, women moving into the workforce, longer commutes, and the need for convenient food that doesn’t require a lot of time and planning.
Think about it – when foods like “hot pockets” were first invented, they were often greeted by consumers with disgust. People didn’t start eating these things because they were more delicious than foods their parents made at home. Many companies seek to recreate things “just like momma did” at home, but they seek to create them as conveniently as possible rather than making them the right way with real ingredients.
Cooking is an entire education in itself because it requires the ability to understand and plan recipes, select and purchase high quality whole foods, and break those foods down into full meals. Eschew convenience – if the food doesn’t take time to prepare, it should be viewed with suspicion. Plan ahead. If you don’t have dinner planned by the time you are eating breakfast, chances are you will opt for fast food.
The final piece of the nutrition puzzle is the habits that lead a person away from temporary diet changes, fad exercise programs, and a never-ending struggle to lose weight rather than a focus on a fulfilling, healthy life outside of the bounds of a strict program. People with the healthiest lifestyles are generally not trying to lose weight. Instead, they have a series of habits that lead them to make better choices without having to constantly deny fast foods.
The habits around meals include eating when you are hungry, not when bored or curious, and stopping when you are full. If you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you aren’t hungry. Removing food from the reward and punishment cycle is another important habit. Many people eat when they celebrate, eat when they are disappointed, and eat when they are contented, whereas healthier habits include rewards like physical activity or family time.
Children are offered cake at school almost every week because it’s someone’s birthday every day of the year, and this habit follows most of them to adulthood. It’s possible to make these celebrations healthier but finding celebrations and activities that avoid food entirely makes for a more successful approach.
Healthier people are also active during the day, reaching their recommended thirty or more minutes of vigorous physical activity, and as a result they sleep a full eight hours per night. Sleep regulates hormones and can cause the body to burn more fat and consume fewer calories during the day.
I’ve been called old-fashioned, but the fact is that the obesity epidemic is a recent phenomenon. The habits and skills that people lived with a generation or two ago can each impact lifestyle disease – working hard during the day, cooking full nutritious meals, eating together with their families, and sleeping through the night. A healthy lifestyle is based on habits and skills rather than on temporary diet or exercise programs.
Adam Castelli is Program Administrator for genHkids, a Springfield, Ill.-based coalition committed to educating youth and families and ultimately improving their health.