Last week, McDonald’s announcement that it will begin posting calorie counts on its menus caused an online buzz. Reactions to the announcement ranged from support to dissent to the unconvinced.
Food choice, nutrition and diet have been growing topics hotly debated in the public arena.
But despite increased public awareness that food choice plays a vital role in health, most Americans continue to eat too few fruits, vegetables and whole grains (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion).
The Obesity Epidemic
With more than two-thirds of American adults either overweight or obese, what American’s eat is a topic that cannot be dismissed lightly. Studies on obesity in America have found that rates of obesity among adults has more than doubled since 1980 and that rates among children, even those as young as 2 to 5, are alarming. Obesity rates for adolescents have tripled, while those for children aged 6-11 have quadrupled.
Along with what many have begun to refer to as an epidemic of obesity, has also come an increased focus on healthy eating behaviors and lifestyle choices. The questions researchers and health advocates ask include: what contributes to unhealthy lifestyle choices and which interventions lead to successful behavior change, weight loss and improved health?
Education about nutrition has been finding its way into the public domain. Magazines and newspapers, advertisements on television and information in our children’s classrooms are a few of the ways health educators have increased the knowledge of the public at large.
But this fight to educate the public about a healthy lifestyle can get lost in the wealth of unhealthy products American’s encounter throughout daily life. Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, workplaces, and corner stores make eating healthy a challenge.
Not only are we surrounded by unhealthy food options, we are also surrounded by unhealthy messages about food. The environment in which we live and work has a significant impact on what we view as healthy and on how much food we believe we need to eat.
We may not pay close attention to the billboards with coffee drinks heaped with whipped cream being consumed by happy and thin models, or commercials in which physically fit sports fans watch a game with a bucket of fried chicken, but they do have an impact on how much we believe we can and need to eat.
Effective nutrition education and behavior change requires multifaceted interventions. Education alone has not lead to great behavior change. Lasting change appears to require education, individual intervention and changes to our environment to make the healthy choice the easy (and obvious) choice.
Individual differences in our beliefs and attitudes about food have an impact on what and how much we eat, but so does our environment. The people around us, the messages we see at work, on TV and in our communities and, yes, even information about the calories in a Big Mac can have an impact on the food choices we make.
If we want better health, we may need to change how we think about food; increasing your awareness about how your environment influences your thoughts about food is one place to start.
Whitaker RC, Wright JA, Pepe MS, Seidel KD, Dietz WH. Predicting Obesity in Young Adulthood from Childhood and Parental Obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 37(13):869–873, 1997.
8 Serdula MK, Ivery D, Coates RJ, Freedman DS. Williamson DF. Byers T. Do Obese Children Become Obese Adults? A Review of the Literature. Preventive Medicine, 22:167–177, 1993.