People enjoy eating, but nutrition and long-term health goals are often not taken into account when we make daily choices about what to eat. According to the Center for Disease Control and National Center for Health Statistics, obesity has risen sharply from 30.5% in 1999 to 42.4% in 2018. Nearly half the population of our country is obese, which also means 42.4% of Americans have increased risk factors for many chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and even certain types of cancers. There is a stereotype that overweight or obese people are lazy, which is a gross oversimplification. Also, lack of trying or laziness cannot account for this high of a percentage. Heredity and other biological factors are usually the first areas to be examined, but social, cultural, and geographical factors must also be taken into consideration as elements that influence weight gain. In order to address the obesity epidemic, it’s imperative to identify the contributing causes, prescribe healthy frameworks and introduce positive habits to ensure healthier outcomes.
I think many of us like to believe our thoughts and behaviors are not influenced by advertising or marketing. There’s a constant barrage of external stimuli popping up on our phones, tablets, tvs, toys, games, shows, stores, schools, etc and many are designed and aimed at children, who are more vulnerable to persuasion. According to a study on Influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing on children’s dietary intake and preference, “evidence indicates that unhealthy food and beverage marketing increases dietary intake and preference for energy‐dense, low‐nutrition products in children during or shortly after exposure to advertisements”. Developing children that are exposed to food and beverage marketing are unfortunately also developing unhealthy habits. Habits become more ingrained in our daily lives and it can become more difficult to counter unhealthy habits with more beneficial choices.
Another study on Barriers to Childhood Obesity Prevention by Vittrup and McClure (2018), indicates that “many parents mentioned setting bad examples for their children’s eating and exercise habits, they also mentioned the cost of healthy foods, parents’ busy schedules, and lack of time to prepare healthy meals”. These findings reveal additional obstacles faced within a family social structure that further complicate healthy nutrition.
Older generations have been subjected to these same marketing campaigns. With the capitalist mindset of selling anything and everything for profit, there are also campaigns focused on different dieting solutions. One of the most jaw-dropping advertisements from a century ago was the Cigarette Diet, with the brand Lucky Strike encouraging people to smoke to suppress their appetites. Throughout the decades various examples of fad diets came and went, such as: the 1970s Grapefruit Diet, the 1980s Slim Fast Diet, 1992 Atkins diet, and now – Paleo, Whole30 and Ketogenic diet. It seems that people are trying, but eventually good intentions fall back into bad habits. This intention-behavior gap phenomenon, noted by De Ridder and his research, demonstrates that often times “automatic influences direct people’s choices to unhealthy alternatives. Looking at unhealthy food intake, the role of intentions appears overruled by the strength of habits.” We see this intention-behavior gap played out in numerous ways. (De Ridder et al., 2017)
Food is often associated with gatherings, holidays and celebrations. What happens when there are too many birthdays and graduations in the same month? It can become an uphill battle trying to adhere to a Whole30 diet while everyone else is eating cake and ice cream. A personal example, as a Filipina, food is a huge part of culture and showing love and appreciation. At almost every major holiday or celebration, a giant roast pig “lechon” and platters of food are basically a requirement. There’s a lot of prescribed guilt if food is leftover or Tita Jasmine’s feelings are hurt if you don’t eat her fried Lumpia rolls. This is likely a similar occurrence with many cultures in varying degrees. Research has revealed that “a person is likely to become obese when a friend is obese” and further “if that friend is a close one, the odds almost triple.” We are heavily influenced by people in our social circles, especially our closest friends and relatives. It can be a bit of a conundrum trying to uphold our health goals only to become sidelined at social gatherings. (Straub, 2017)
Perhaps, one of the most disheartening determinants for not adhering to a health diet according to De Ridder is low socioeconomic status. De Ridder et al (2017) points out that “low SES is the single consistent risk factor for not adhering to a healthy diet.” The term food deserts, described as households being more than a mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle, results in families purchasing high calorie, low nutrient meals from fast food restaurants and always open 24/7 convenience stores. (Weaver, 2017). Taking all of these components into consideration, it seems that our environment heavily influences our behavior. Acknowledging the conditions that magnify susceptibility to well-known drivers of obesity, such as: low socioeconomic status, food deserts, little time or money to prepare healthy meals, and social and cultural influences; the propagation of the vicious cycle of poverty and obesity forms a feedback loop. (Weaver, 2017)
How is it possible to formulate a healthy diet plan when it feels like so many factors are out of our control? Certainly, there are many top level changes that need to be addressed through public policy or regulated through governing powers. However, small, daily, achievable personal changes can have an enormous impact.
According to Dr. Dean Ornish, simple lifestyle changes can make a powerful difference because we invest meaning in our actions. When diet and lifestyle are modified, it’s possible to slow, stop, reverse or prevent human and economic cost and complications. Ornish expands that daily lifestyle choices such as: how we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, and how much intimacy, love and support we reciprocate is using lifestyle as treatment. Taking these factors into account, Ornish found that ~500 gene expressions were changed within just 3 months, simply by making changes in diet and lifestyle. It’s amazingly powerful to see scientific evidence that exhibits the turning on, or up regulating of the good genes that protect us and the down regulating of the bad genes that cause inflammation, oxidative stress, and the oncogenic mutations of the ras genes that were turned off. So, the more positive lifestyle changes we make, which are available to everyone for free, we can alter our genes to achieve improved health. As an added bonus, not only do diet and lifestyle changes benefits our physical health, they also benefit our mental health; comparable or even better than anti-depressants.
Ornish describes what some of these mechanisms for health are, but what specifically should we be eating? According to the Healthy Eating Plate Program, precision nutrition, or personalized nutrition, “have shown that for the average person, eating more vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins while eating fewer highly processed foods made with added sugars and salt can help reduce the risk of various diseases.” According to Harvard’s Healthy Living Guide 2020-2021, a multi-dimensional approach, which also makes considerations for “sleep, physical activity, and time of meals also plays a role in causing variations in blood levels of glucose and triglycerides after meals. Therefore, an individual may see additional benefits if following personalized nutrition guidance beyond general health recommendations.” This helps establish a clearer guide for how we can help ourselves.
Eating nutritious food is no doubt beneficial. In addition, small simple lifestyle changes also leverages positive outcomes. A community and nature-driven transformative guerrilla gardening movement led by Ron Finley and his volunteer group, LA Green Grounds, have started planting food forests in food deserts. Finley talks about how in South Central LA “the drive-thrus are killing more people than drive-bys,” or to more plainly say, people are dying from curable diseases. Finley and LA Green Grounds change communities in positive ways: training families to garden, live a more sustainable life, and find pride in growing their own food and being able to eat it and take back their health. Finley goes on to say that “if you don’t show how food affects the mind and body, then people will blindly eat whatever the hell you put in front of them.”
The demand for our attention is high, but both talks by Finley and Ornish demonstrate the importance of establishing daily healthy habits amidst the endless environmental distractions. There is an urgent call for the reprioritization of our hierarchy of commitment. Harvard Health implores that “we must not lose sight of improving the broader food environment through effective policies, regulations, and other population-based approaches that can help make healthy food choices the default.” For our younger generations, that begins with them seeing us a positive role models.
We must model the behavior we hope future generations to adopt by advocating for policy changes and engaging in more sustainable infrastructures. While it’s so much easier to watch TV and eat a bag of chips, it’s empowering to know that we have the power to instill healthy habits in this younger generation. We can grow some kale locally, make healthier kale chips, add healthy leafy greens to our diet, connect with our kids through cooking, eating and gardening, and connect with nature and take pride in making choices that are sustainable for us and our world.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 11). Adult Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html.
De Ridder, D., Kroese, F., Evers, C., Adriaanse, M., & Gillebaart, M. (2017).
Healthy diet: Health impact, prevalence, correlates, and interventions. Psychology & Health, 32(8), 907–941.
Sadeghirad, B., Duhaney, T., Motaghipisheh, S., Campbell, N. R. C., & Johnston, B. C. (2016). Influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing on children’s dietary intake and preference: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 17(10), 945–959. https://doi-org.ezproxy.ccac.edu/10.1111/obr.12445
Staff, A. (2021, February 5). Healthy Living Guide 2020/2021. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2021/01/19/healthy-living-guide-2020-2021/.
Straub, R. O. (2019). Health psychology: a biopsychosocial approach. Macmillan International Higher Education.
Weaver, B. (2017). Health and Socioeconomic Disparities of Food Deserts. Global Ecological Humanities. https://sites.duke.edu/lit290s-1_02_s2017/2017/03/04/health-and-socioeconomic-disparities-of-food-deserts/.
YouTube. (2012). A guerilla gardener in South Central La. (2012). TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerrilla_gardener_in_south_central_la
YouTube. (2012). What’s Good For You Is Good For The Planet. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYmInK5xo6g.