Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Eating’
That getting out in the sun has many health benefits is old news. But how exactly sunrays enhance our wellbeing has not been completely understood by scientists for the longest time. In fact, warnings about excessive sun exposure because of potential skin damage and skin cancer have dominated the conversation. However, too little contact with the outdoors can also cause problems when it results in the deficiency of an all-important ingredient called vitamin D.
Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D can be produced in the body by exposing the skin to sunlight. But that is not always guaranteed. Because so many people spend their daytime hours inside, the danger of becoming vitamin D deficient is now more widespread than ever.
Those who live in the northern hemisphere with fewer sunny days and the elderly who don’t leave home as much any more are particularly at risk. Pregnant women and obese persons can also find it harder to meet their vitamin D needs.
Having a sufficient supply of vitamin D available is critical for a number of body functions, including the maintenance of bones, muscles, and vital organs, especially the heart. More recent research found that increasing levels of vitamin D can be helpful in the prevention of heart disease and related health issues.
One study from Harvard University concluded that men who were deficient in vitamin D were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as their counterparts who had adequate levels. One reason could be that vitamin D plays a role in controlling blood pressure and preventing artery damage, the researchers say.
Other investigations have suggested that substantially more deadly heart attacks occur during the winter months than at any other time of the year, not because of cold weather but more likely because of reduced sunlight.
On the other hand, people who live in mountainous regions or spend long periods of time at high altitude and are exposed to greater ultraviolet-B (UVB) doses have on average a lower risk of heart disease, according to studies.
Those for whom sunshine is not always easy to come by should consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Be advised to consult with your physician what amounts are appropriate.
Taking supplements, however, should never be considered a substitute for healthy eating. Nothing can be more health promoting than sound diet choices. And there are plenty of foods that provide reasonably high doses of vitamin D, including fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks, among others.
Together with a little extra effort to spend more time outside, these guidelines should keep most people from becoming deficient, with countless more positive ‘side effects’ to boot.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
More people pay close attention to their physical health and well-being, and yet obesity rates and diseases stemming from weight problems continue to rise. While healthy eating and regular exercise have become commonplace among the educated and affluent, the less fortunate show little signs of improvement regardless of efforts by health experts and government policy makers to change their fate. In fact, studies find that the gap between the fit and the fat keeps widening.
Physical appearance has been an important issue in most societies throughout the ages, but today, how we look has become a reflection of how we live and visa versa, says Dr. Florentine Fritzen, a journalist and historian who studies sociological trends.
Being well-fed was once a sign of wealth, but poor people are now most prone to unhealthy weight gain and related diseases, while the well-to-do enjoy greater fitness and vitality, even longer life expectancy, than ever before.
Life presents itself very differently to these two groups. To which one you belong determines multiple aspects of your well-being, not just how well you eat, Fritzen says.
Your good looks also play a role in how society judges you. For example, if physical beauty and fitness are equated with hard work, discipline and success, overweight can then be identified with laziness and lack of self-control. If slim is thought of as healthy, then fat can be considered as sick.
Numerous studies have investigated how physical appearance plays out in the workplace. Just being overweight can hurt your career, according to Steve Siebold, a self-help coach, business consultant, and author of “Die Fat or Get Tough: 101 Differences in Thinking Between Fat People and Fit People.”
“Many employers look at obese candidates and immediately think, ‘this person failed in controlling their own health, how are they going to run a division,’” he warns.
More and more companies actively encourage their workers to stay on top of their health and offer wellness programs and other incentives, which in turn help them prevent productivity loss and lower healthcare premiums. But, as some have reported, there can also be a lot of pressure on those who ‘don’t measure up.’
What gets too often overlooked in all this is how much easier it is to stay in shape for people who have the necessary means to take care of themselves. What is feasible with a good education, financial security, access to supplies and services, a safe home and neighborhood, etc., can be a never-ending struggle without them. And that is not simply a matter of personal choices.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists a number of determinants that decide whether someone’s living conditions are beneficial or detrimental for his or her health. Only one of them is based on biological factors like age, gender, and genetic predispositions. Only one is based on individual behavior such as diet and lifestyle choices. All others are environmental and circumstantial in nature, meaning they are largely outside a person’s control.
To fully understand the existing health disparities and inequities among the public today, we must take into account the social and economical disadvantages that affect individuals or entire groups in ways they cannot easily influence but expose them to heightened risks, the agency says. To narrow the gap towards greater health equality, it urges aggressive investing in broader access to healthcare services as well as health education.
Obviously, we have a long way to go.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
Every five years or so, the U.S. government updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, advising us how to eat to stay healthy. 2015 is the next due date.
Starting in 1980, two government agencies – the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS) – have periodically released new recommendations based on their latest findings, which over the years has lead to well-known icons like the Food Pyramid (1992), MyPyramid (2005), and MyPlate (2011). But despite all their efforts, obesity rates and related health problems have soared in this country and elsewhere, and don’t seem to abate any time soon.
The government’s purpose of issuing dietary recommendations is to encourage people to maintain balanced and health-promoting eating habits, manage their weight, and prevent diseases. They also serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition education programs.
But only a small fraction of Americans ever seem to consider the Guidelines or follow them, if at all, only for short periods of time. According to the NPD Group, a leading marketing research firm that studied long-term data on American eating preferences, even many health-conscious consumers live up to the recommended standards for no longer than a week out of the year. The study also found that when people attempt dietary improvements, they often tend to overeat, believing that healthier foods will do them no harm, no matter the quantities they consume.
Admittedly, the Guidelines have routinely been vague and confusing to many people, and this year’s latest update probably won’t be much different in that regard.
For instance, preliminary drafts of the coming updates suggest a substantial reduction of calorie intake from added sugars to about 10 percent of all daily calories. Currently it is estimated that most Americans get about 13 percent of total calories from added sugars. Children, adolescents, and young adults consume probably much more from sugary sodas.
Added sugars are now considered by experts a greater health threat than sodium. The problem is that, as with sodium (salt), it is hard to avoid eating sugar since it is present in most processed foods, including those that don’t even taste sweet like baked goods and condiments. So it is up to the individual consumer to detect and calculate the sugar amounts he or she’s getting by carefully deciphering nutrition facts labels and ingredients lists – not an easy task for the most committed dieters among us, and food manufacturers will probably not be too willing to help along.
As they did before, the authors of the 2015 Guidelines will likely caution against high intake of meat products, especially red and processed meats. The current recommendations call for using a wide variety of protein sources, including lean meat cuts, fish, poultry, and also vegetarian alternatives like beans and peas.
One issue that could be addressed for the first time this year is the impact of both food production and consumption on the environment. Here too, increasing meat consumption worldwide plays a significant role. A diet that is lower in animal-based foods would not only be health-promoting but could also help lessen environmental damages, an advisory panel to the government agencies suggested.
If the government’s goal of advising people about their eating habits is to improve public health and cut medical expenditures, its recommendations cannot be in the abstract. The latest version of the Guidelines, MyPlate, has been praised for being more intuitive, intelligible, and actionable than some of its predecessors. But still, when it comes right down to the dinner table (or more likely, the TV tray), to be truly beneficial, the given advice must take a hands-on approach. Let’s hope there’s more progress to be made.
The final version of the Guidelines is scheduled to be released later this year.
When people hear the word “diet,” most think of calorie restriction, deprivation, making up for past indulgences, and as so forth. There is something unpleasant, almost punitive about the whole concept of dieting, which is unfortunate because it can make it harder to turn to healthier eating regimens.
“The main goal of going on a diet is to get off it as quickly as possible,” a client of mine used to say. I’m sure his sentiment is widely shared.
Another reason why diets are unfavorably looked upon is that they don’t work in most cases, even if they show initial success. It can be maddeningly frustrating to realize the futility of one’s sincere efforts when lost pounds return with interest, seemingly for no particular reason.
Being intimately familiar with the scenario, I tell my clients from the get-go that if their diet leaves them feeling deprived and unsatisfied, they will not be able to maintain it in the long run, no matter how beneficial it may be to their health.
In its original meaning, the term “diet” does not describe a departure from one’s regular eating styles. On the contrary, it simply means what and how someone usually eats. Certain eating habits may have developed over long periods of time, often starting during childhood.
When established patterns begin to cause problems, e.g. unwanted weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, adult-onset diabetes, etc., some form of intervention is likely to be required. How effective the intervening measures will be depends on multiple factors.
All need for change starts with a crisis, benign or serious. Nobody arrives at the decision to change his or her eating patterns in a vacuum. There may be acute health problems, issues of vanity, a desire for winning back youthful rigor – whatever. An important question is how do the required changes fit into someone’s existing circumstances.
Few people can completely undo and remake their current lifestyle features. There are families, occupations, commitments, and multiple other concerns involved. Diet and lifestyle are intertwined with all that. How can we expect, for instance, someone to eat in unaccustomed ways, establish and maintain an unfamiliar exercise routine, stop all detrimental habits like smoking or drinking at once and go on with life as if nothing happened? It’s a ludicrous proposition.
Then there is the matter of personality. Some (very few) people are able to turn on a dime. The vast majority tends to implement changes only in small increments. In my book, “The Healthy Diner,” I describe different personality types I’ve come across over my many years of health counseling. There are people who find it relatively easy to try out new approaches, others prefer to stick with the tried and true. Others again are ready to take up whatever is new and exciting but lose interest or don’t have the stamina to see things through over time. None of these attitudes are to be judged as better or worse, but they are predictors of how likely a person will succeed with certain methods.
So what would be the best way to get on a healthy path that is effective and also endures? The simple answer is that none fits all.
What that means in practical terms is that before you sign up for Weight Watchers, South Beach, Mediterranean, DASH, or whatever seems most promising, ask yourself how this or that program fits you – you as that unique individual at a particular moment in your life. Examine carefully your natural tendencies, your strengths and weaknesses, and also your situation and how people and things around you are affected by your decisions.
Eventually, you should be able to come up with what I call the “right diet,” which is specifically designed for you, and the only one I trust to produce lasting results. You may be successful by following, at least in part, a particular prescription, or borrow from several. In the end, however, it has to be all yours.
Although there is certainly no shortage of nutritional advice today, most consumers remain painfully confused about the quality of their food choices. The reason is not only lack of interest or education but also how relevant information is conveyed.
Food manufacturers tend not to inform their customers very well when marketing their products, a recent survey from the United Kingdom concluded. More than half of the people interviewed for this project said that most nutritional information on food and drink packages was hard to decipher and that they would pay more attention if it were presented in simpler ways.
“The problem is not so much with the labeling itself but the lack of clarity in general,” said Thomas Brown, an associate director for research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), the company that carried out the survey. “Consumers are bombarded with conflicting messages from the media on what constitutes a healthy diet, making it difficult for them to make informed choices about how to eat healthily,” he said in an interview with Food Navigator.
The survey also included respondents working in the food industry. A vast majority (83 percent) admitted having personally witnessed manipulations in words and imagery to make products appear more nutritionally valuable than they actually were. 37 percent believed that manufacturers and retailers made it deliberately difficult for consumers to understand the information they were given.
This confirms an earlier study, also from the U.K., that found food label descriptions to be rather “economical with the truth,” causing widespread misinformation and confusion.
The study, which was conducted by the British Food Advisory Committee, reported that many descriptions were, if not false, outright meaningless. Terms like “pure,” “fresh,” “natural,” “authentic,” “original,” “homemade,” “country style,” etc. tell consumers nothing about the nutritional quality of these products, the authors of the report said. Yet they are readily used in unfounded assurances to seduce people into buying them.
Closer to home, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked food manufacturers about a year ago to change nutrition labels, so they display the calorie and nutritional content of the entire food container instead of dividing it up into serving sizes, which oftentimes seems arbitrary and hard to interpret by consumers. In a study, which was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the researchers found that single-serving and dual-column formats of nutrition facts labels were easiest to follow by most participants.
People are willing to learn about the ins and outs of healthy eating if they are explained to them in user-friendly ways. If they feel that the information given to them is unclear, or worse, misleading, they lose interest in making adjustments and go back to ingrained habits.
“I would like to see the total number of calories in a package on a package,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor for nutrition at New York University and author of “Food Politics – How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” (University of California Press 2002) in response to the FDA study. “I don’t think people should have to do the math,” she added.
Most of us already knew about the importance of eating more fruit and vegetables to stay healthy and control our weight. But now a new study from England suggests that no less than seven servings of fresh produce per day may be required to give us a reasonable shot at good health and old age.
For their research, scientists from University College London (UCL) used data from annual statistical surveys, known as Health Survey for England (HSE), to study the eating habits of over 65,000 Brits, starting in 2001 through 2013.
Based on their findings, they concluded that participants who followed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables could dramatically lower their risk of dying prematurely from any illness, including heart disease and cancer.
For example, people who ate seven or more portions of plant-based foods every day decreased their risk of death from all causes by an astounding 42 percent, from heart disease by 31 percent, and from cancer by 25 percent. These numbers, the researchers observed, held up even after they were adjusted for age, gender, weight, physical activity level, income, education, and lifestyle, including tobacco and alcohol use.
The apparent benefits are staggering, said Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode, the lead author of the study. “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age.”
Until now, most official guidelines advised about five servings daily. The World Health Organization (WHO) called increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables to “5 A Day” an important part of its “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” in 2004. Australia has a public campaign named “Go for 2&5” that promotes eating two portions of fruit and five of vegetables per day, especially for children. In the United States, a program titled “Fruits & Veggies – More Matters” recommends filling half of every plate with fruit and vegetables.
People shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by these numbers, said Dr. Oyebode. “Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study, even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one,” she added.
Critics have pointed out that these latest recommendations may be unrealistic for most people because of high prices for fresh food items. For example, Dr. Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, said the seven-a-day message was too challenging for many consumers and would require governmental subsidies and/or additional taxes on less healthy products to make high quality foods available to all in society.
Other experts agree. People were already struggling with the existing targets. Plus, in the real world, eating habits are a complex issue that involves numerous variables such as access, affordability, education, and social and cultural differences. Also, simply focusing on the health effects of one or two food groups leaves out multiple other components, including agricultural and environmental factors. Not many of us can devise their own dietary regimen independent of their surroundings.
The bottom line is that we all have to make the best of what we have to work with. The new study, as dramatic as its findings appear to be, is not really new at all. It says that the healthier you eat – plus do the other important things like exercise, manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t abuse your body – the greater the chances will be for you to stay healthy and fit throughout your life. But you probably already knew that, too.
If you have any interest at all in healthy eating, you probably have come across Brian Wansink’s book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think.” In a nutshell, the author, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, wants us to pay more attention to our eating habits, something that may be easier said than done. But if mindless eating is such a central component of the ongoing obesity epidemic, as the professor suggests, what would its opposite – mindful eating – entail?
There has been increasing interest in the subject in recent years, and a growing movement that connects eating with meditation and other calming exercises has emerged. Even Google now offers mindful eating lunches on its headquarter campus in Mountain View, California.
“Mindful eating is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat, and the thoughts and emotions that you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat,” says Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of five books on the practice of mindful eating.
Our hectic lives usually don’t leave us much time for paying attention to the foods we consume. And when it comes to food preparation, efficiency and convenience trump almost all other aspects. So we never really become aware of the taste, smell and mouth feel of our edibles, let alone cultivate positive emotions like comfort and gratitude we could derive from eating.
Instead, Dr. Albers says, we regularly overeat, graze all day, skip meals, or do a thousand other things while munching on something or other that has little meaning for us. That kind of mindless relationship to food then can easily lead to overeating and unwanted weight gain or worse.
“The fundamental reason for our imbalance with food and eating is that we’ve forgotten how to be present as we eat,” says Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen teacher in Clatskanie, Oregon, who has written a guidebook on mindful eating. “Mindful eating helps us learn to hear what our body is telling us about hunger and satisfaction,” he says.
As we pay more attention to our food, we begin to better understand our need for being nurtured, not just for the benefit of the body but the mind as well. We notice how eating affects our moods and how our emotions such as joy, anxiety, or boredom influence our eating habits.
Especially the holidays are a time when we should pay more attention to our eating behavior. When we get stressed out over all the shopping and preparations ahead of us, and festive meals and treats are offered everywhere, we would be well-advised to stop once in a while and take time to relax and reflect a bit. That’s when mindful eating can play an important role, says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a lecturer on nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health who co-wrote a book on the subject with Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, titled “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” “We need to be coming back to ourselves and say: Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is this just because I’m so sad or stressed out?”
Thankfully, engaging in mindful eating does not require lots of practice or training. You can begin at any time and without further ado. Just settle down and become quiet for a moment. Focus on something edible in front of you. It can be a three-course meal or a single raisin. Make yourself aware of aromas, tastes and textures, and also your responses, both physical and emotional. Eat in silence. Eat slowly. Chew with your eyes closed. Try not to let your mind drift elsewhere. If it does, bring yourself gently back to the present experience without judging.
It also helps to create an environment that is comfortable and keeps you safe from interruptions. Make sure your phone is off and you cannot be disturbed. You may like sharing the experience with others, or you may prefer to be alone.
In any case, you will be making progress simply by finding yourself slowing down and becoming better aware of your actions. Your body will take care of everything else.
Starting next year as part of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” chain restaurants across America must post calorie counts on their menus to help patrons make better-informed decisions about the foods and drinks they’re buying. New York and a few other cities have already such requirements on the books and researchers have been busy analyzing whether it has had a noticeable impact on people’s behavior.
One early study that compared receipts from fast food chains in New York City before and after calorie postings were made mandatory found no significant difference in consumers’ choices. Still, defenders of the law believe that its effects will become more evident over time.
“The effect of calorie counts is beneficial,” said Thomas Farley, NYC’s health commissioner in an interview with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. “But it’s small and somewhat spotty and can be overwhelmed by the marketing of the restaurant,” he added.
Apparently, giving people additional information by itself does not necessarily alter their preferences. Most of us act against our better knowledge and judgment at least some of the time, consciously or not. When it comes to food choices, what influences us the most can depend on a multitude of factors.
Preferences for taste and presentation are obvious elements and so are price and availability. Less transparent are the effects of culture, upbringing and emotional components that go into our decision-making processes. For instance, we may limit ourselves to foods we have been familiar with since childhood. We may connect certain foods with seasonal events and practices (e.g. barbecued meats in the summer, cake and sweets on holidays). We may have religious or other cultural reasons to include or exclude some items. Or we may reach for this and that when we are in a particular emotional state (e.g. joyful, relaxed, bored, frustrated, depressed). Also, of course, the marketing efforts of food manufacturers and restaurateurs play a significant role.
What really matters is what your beliefs are before you reach for your food, says Dr. Bryan Bollinger, a professor for marketing and economic policy at New York University Stern School of Business who was involved in the study on the impact of calorie postings. These beliefs are not always examined, which only increases their power over us.
A separate study on the leading factors that influence the typical American diet found that people’s lifestyle and social environment can predict their food choices almost as much as taste, cost and availability. This still holds true for the health-conscious. Demographics and membership in certain health lifestyle clusters predict consumption, including of items deemed as healthful like fruits and vegetables, according to Dr. Karen Glanz, a researcher at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and lead author of the study report. In other words, even the most aware and discriminating among us might not be as independent in their behavior as they would like to think.
Nevertheless, educated decision-making is nearly always a step up from operating in the dark, and for this reason alone it makes sense to give consumers as much information as possible. It matters how much of a nudge you’re given, says Dr. Bollinger. Sometimes even a little bit can push you in the right direction.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Your Eating Habits – What Makes Them, What Breaks Them.”
Americans don’t like to cook. They don’t want to spend the time it takes for food shopping, food preparation and clean up, especially when it’s so much easier to stop for a quick bite at a restaurant or drive-thru or bring home some take-out. Yet, experts are convinced that making home cooking fashionable again would be one of the most effective steps we could take to address the nation’s obesity crisis.
The United States ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries not only in terms of time spent on meal preparation but also on consumption, according to surveys conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international group that analyzes economic data worldwide. In other words, we not only don’t cook, we also don’t set much time aside to enjoy our food. Instead, more and more of us skip breakfast, work through lunch and sustain ourselves throughout the day by snacking.
The percentage of calories from snacks in the American diet has doubled since the 1970s, as more people have turned into all-day grazers while foregoing sitdown meals on most days, a study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found.
Over half of American adults say they have three or more snacks a day. Almost a third of children and adolescents eat chips, popcorn, pretzels and the likes on a daily basis. The amount of pizza eaten, both in restaurants and at home, has nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Meanwhile, the number of calories in pizzas has increased by 25 percent on average since the late 1970s. Over the same time period vegetable consumption has declined from 2.6 to just 1.9 servings per day – and that includes French fries.
The easiest way to turn these developments around would be to start preparing our meals from scratch again, says Mark Bittman, food writer and author of “Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet” (Kindle edition, 2011). Millions of Americans don’t ever cook. The rest cooks on occasion, often just microwaving. Many don’t bother with sitting down at the dinner table but rather eat in the car, at a counter, or in front of a screen. “And that’s a shame, because cooking is a basic essential, worthwhile and even enjoyable task,” he writes.
Bittman applauds others who are trying to get the message out about the many benefits of home cooking, like his fellow-book-author Michael Pollan who just published a new book on the same subject, titled, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, 2013). In a review on the then upcoming publication he writes: “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet.”
The reasons are obvious. If you are in charge of the ingredients that go into your food, you already are going to eat better because you won’t include extra fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, dyes and other additives. You also won’t eat as many highly caloric items like French fries, which are cumbersome to make at home. The same goes for pizza (made from scratch, not the ones you just heat up).
One of the central problems with cooking is that we don’t value it enough any more. We are used to having tasks like these done for us by outside service providers. But unlike getting your car or computer fixed by someone else, cooking is much more intimate. It connects us with our bodies, nature and loved ones.
Michael Pollan even thinks that the experience of cooking brings us closer to the most basic elements that surround us: fire, water, air and earth and also tightens our social and ecological relationships. All that has deeply transformational characteristics that can change us on multiple levels, but all for the better.
That is much to hope for – perhaps too much. Still, it is a fact that an increasing number of people are looking for ways to eat more healthily and also reduce stress on the environment, e.g. by cutting back on meat consumption and buying more produce from local farms. A rediscovery of home cooking would fit squarely within these trends. Whether it will be enough to transform or currently predominant way of life remains doubtful.
It’s a proven fact that most people change their eating habits and lifestyle choices only after a serious health scare such as a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Still, in many cases that may not be enough. Old habits tend to die hard, but often there are also not many alternatives to what they’ve been doing in terms of eating right and taking care of themselves.
A recent study found that most consumers after being confronted with a major health crisis were still influenced in their choices by factors other than what’s good for their health. For example, people can find it difficult to change their long established eating habits, says Dr. Yu Ma, an economics professor at Alberta School of Business and author of the study. Another highly influential factor is price, he says. If they get a good deal on a particular item, they will go for it, and if it’s too expensive, they will stay away, no matter how much they would benefit healthwise.
Another issue is what he calls the “health halo effect.” Most people divide foods simply into two categories: healthy and unhealthy, he says. If something is considered healthful, e.g. a salad or a breakfast cereal, as opposed to a cheeseburger or a sugar-laden donut, people tend to overindulge in the “healthy” stuff without much further thought. We have seen that phenomenon when, for example, fat-free cookies came on the market and many believed they could consume those in almost unlimited quantities because of the absence of fat. Of course, eliminating the fat did not make those cookies less caloric, and the results became apparent soon thereafter.
Another study, this one on heart attack and stroke patients, showed that nearly 15 percent did not alter their eating and lifestyle habits after the incident, including poor diet choices, lack of exercise and smoking. Less than half of all participants in the study reported having made at least one change, and less than a third said they made several improvements. Only 4 percent claimed they did everything that was recommended to them to prevent further deterioration of their health.
Much of the unwillingness or inability to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices can be blamed on the widespread confusion among the public due to the ceaseless onslaught of sometimes contradictory messages in the media about health matters. In addition, many of the warnings issued by experts are hard to heed by consumers who are oftentimes ignorant, if not intentionally kept in the dark, about the nutritional quality of their food supply. For instance, recommendations to avoid high fat, salt and sugar content may be well-meaning, but they are by and large useless when ingredients lists are hard to decipher or when restaurants aren’t required to follow any dietary guidelines or to post nutritional information on their menus.
“I think people are interested in making changes and they are heeding the warnings,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the John Hopkins School of Public Health to NBCNews. “But when it comes to food, it’s much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don’t consider to be a dessert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar.” Similar concerns apply to salt in countless processed foods, many of which don’t even taste salty, and certain types of fats, some of which are obscured by arbitrary serving descriptions on food labels.
Undoubtedly, more and more people want to be better informed about nutritional health and be empowered to make the right choices. With growing consumer demand for further regulation and protection, that may be feasible over time. But for now, it’s an ongoing uphill battle, and most of us have to fend for ourselves as well as we can.