Navigating Nutrition in a Landscape of Excess

February 7, 2014 Johanna Goetzel

Change is hard–especially behavior change in a context not designed to support it.  New Year’s resolutions, like those mentioned by Taubes in his New York Times Sunday Review piece, are usually forgotten. It isn’t just that they are ambitious. The problem is that we live in an environment where healthy choices are challenged by increasingly cheap, ubiquitous and tasty treats.

For example, twenty years ago, a typical cheeseburger contained 333 calories, compared to 590 today. According to a new FDA report pizza also accounts for 4% of all calories consumed by American adults daily. Additionally, our lifestyles are more sedentary–average Americans spend nearly nine hours in front of screens.

Together, our diet and lack of physical activity put us at risk for lifestyle-related diseases, like hypertension, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Addressing these requires efforts from multiple sectors as health is affected by everything from policies set by governments, to products developed and marketed by companies, and corporate policies impacting employee health. The argument of ‘willpower’ falls away when powerful outside forces act in concert.

We are more likely to consume more calories when we eat outside the home. According to the USDA in 2012, more than 40% of meals in America are eaten away from home and 82% of adults eat out at least once a week. Fundamentally changing the foods offered at restaurants can improve the food landscape and promote health. Efforts led by the Culinary Institute of America in partnership with Harvard’s School of Public Health are underway to develop Menus of Change. Consumers want more vegetable options, lean meats, and seafood, and Menus of Change is updating menus to give it to them.

A complementary initiative is Grow Your Family Strong, whose mission is to encourage mindful cooking at home by providing nutritious recipes, shopping lists and most importantly, support from other participants in building healthy meals for their families. Founder Monique Nadeau says “We need practical ideas that are simple to execute, automate and delegate; are value for money, nutritious and include meals our families will enjoy. I’m looking for something that makes my life easier and my family healthier.”

If making a change is hard, maintaining it is even more challenging. New technology, like Stickk can help individuals make ‘commitment contracts’ to a healthier lifestyle. Participants use the WebApp to publicize their commitments to quit smoking, eat healthier and exercise more frequently and then receive support from an online community. Building a community through health technology is an effective way to achieve personal goals.

Finally, addressing short-termism – where consumers tend to discount the future impacts of their decisions for immediate comfort or pleasure – can be built into polices and private sector commitment to health. For example, there is an opportunity to make healthier foods more affordable and accessible at point of sale. A few pilot programs, including Healthy Food Here, are making it easier (and cost effective) for retailers to provide fresh produce. Resolving to eat well and a landscape of support go together like (low-fat) milk and (wholegrain) cookies.

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