Light reading about a heavy problem

One of my most recent flights did not involve actual food.  A 45 minute flight does not earn us peanuts, pretzels, or beverages.  Darn.  But I satisfied my foodie cravings with Sky magazine.  This is usually my diversion while I wait for us to reach an altitude where I can play with my smartphone and listen to music.  Normally I just flip through, reading the headlines and half a sorta-interesting article or two.  There are always pretty pictures of beaches, fancy hotels, and new restaurants.  This time, I was completely consumed by a five page article called, “Food Fight!”

SKY Magazine, Delta, food fight, Kevin Featherly, Nigel Buchanan

The picture was obviously catchy, and the byline sucked me in even more and made my nerdy heart skip a beat. “A debate is raging over what to do about the foods and behaviors that contribute to obesity and heat disease.  What are we willing to do to win this fight?”

Let me at em, coach!  I’ll throw some words at it!

You might not have known this, but this is the very conundrum that made me go back to graduate school.  I was tired of reading and hearing about the increasing cost and death toll of preventable, lifestyle-related diseases.   The fact that today’s kids are the first generation that can expect a shorter life expectancy than their parents is too sad to sit back and do nothing.

So what can we do?  The Sky magazine article by Kevin Featherly suggests that a combination of technology and public policy strategies will help make the healthier choice the easier one.

1. Turning Food Deserts into Oases

This is the first time I’ve seen food deserts discussed in somewhat detail in a very non-serious publication!  No offense, SKY Magazine.  I just generally expect your hard-hitting articles to be more focused on more popular or travel-related topics  like one of L.A.’s many [hot] creative stars or Karen Hatfield’s current favorite winter fruit.   SKY does deserve props for diving in and educating their flying clientele about this growing issue.  Researchers and writers will argue as to whether or not food deserts exist.  We can argue about the best way to define and measure “food deserts”, but the reality is that some people live in areas where healthy food is less available than unhealthy food, and possibly more expensive, too.  Once we agree on that, we can argue some more about which areas should be labeled food deserts.  Or, we allow communities to step up and assert that they need help making their communities healthier.  (See WeTHRIVE for an example).  Certainly increasing access to healthy options is a good general goal.

2. Can Technology Help Shape Behavior?

Anyone with a cell phone knows how technology can change behavior.  How many of us don’t wear watches anymore because we just check our phones?  With the advent of smart phones, a whole new market for behavior change apps has evolved.  We can now use our smart phones to count calories, check a restaurant menu item’s nutrition facts, track our steps per day, and quit smoking.  “mHealth” is a whole new line of medical research using mobile technology to impact choices.  In the article BJ Fogg argues that calorie counting apps aren’t enough to change long-term habits.   Fogg works off the formula of Behavior=Motivation+Ability+Trigger.   The last piece of the equation is where app designers have missed the mark thus far. I could be motivated to work out, able to go for a walk, but if no one reminds me, I may forget or find something else to do.  If my phone can alert me when I am tweeted at, why can’t it tell me to drop down and give it twenty??

3. Government’s Role

What should the government have to do with my food choices?  Isn’t it my right to eat buttered bacon with ketchup if I want?  And chase it down with a gallon of soda (not in NYC)?  Let’s talk about that.

Robert Lustig, sugar, food for thought, SKY Magazine, Delta

Scientists now clearly understand the way drugs like nicotine change the chemistry of the brain and cause addiction.  And we have decided that when the use of a product can cause addiction, the consumer must be warned (by the government requiring labels, etc in the case of tobacco) or be made illegal (in the case of heroin, cocaine, etc).  Researchers like Dr. Robert Lustig are also sounding the alarm that components in our foods (like sugar) may also change our brain chemistry and cause addiction.

Have you ever felt out of control over an order of fries?  A bag of potato chips?  A bottle of diet coke?  I have.  If I order a side of fries, they will be gone by the end of my meal.  And then I will have a slightly queasy stomach.  The concept of food addictions isn’t new.  Overeaters Anonymous has been helping those struggling with food addiction for over 50 years.  We know that food can trigger the brain in a similar way as drugs do.  Much to Nancy Reagan’s dismay, we can’t “just say no” to food.

Lustig reasons (see his quote to the left) that since we are physiologically incapable of controlling what we eat, based on his lab research, that we are better off leaving that to the government who at least has our health in mind over the food industry who is only concerned with profit.

Some government control could increase prices on proven unhealthy food products like soda and limit marketing of unhealthy foods to children.  This worked with tobacco.  Taxes and marketing bans have reduced smoking, reduced avoidable deaths, and changed social norms.  The private sector has taken a head start at some of these shifts.  Disney is cutting back on unhealthy foods in their theme parks and advertising during its programming.  Wal-Mart is cutting the cost of fresh produce to their customers and are seeing an increase in produce sales.

So what’s the take-home message?

Changing our nation’s eating habits for the long term will take more than individual will power.

The very few can do this completely on their own.  Most of us need support from a healthier environment that includes lots of healthy food options, frequent triggers to take healthy steps, and an overall culture that supports healthy living through tax policy, warning labels, and regulation of dangerous materials.  And some of us need spouses to hide the Girl Scout Cookies, too.


2 comments on “Light reading about a heavy problem”
  1. I enjoyed reading this blog post! I too decided to go back to school because of the growing epidemic of obesity and chronic, lifestyle-related diseases. It really saddens me that many of today’s children don’t have much chance of growing up to be healthy adults (lots of research to suggest that overweight children become overweight adults) and are having to deal with health problems previously relegated to old people. I can’t help but think of the loss of brain-power and ambition associated with poor diets and think that the next generation is going to be poorly equipped to lead the world through a very daunting time in human history.

    I find the question of government’s role to be an interesting one. You see, I think that the government, perhaps inadvertently, has contributed significantly to the current plight of the American population’s health (along with us followers up here in Canada and elsewhere). In the 1970’s, the American gov’t used faulty science to proclaim that red meat and sat fats were to blame for the growing obesity epidemic. People were told to eat less red meat, and they actually listened! But they replaced that satiating red meat with more white carbs and sugar. As you reference Lustig, I know you are aware of the perils of sugar, but the question of fats’ role in the health issues of today is a bit more controversial. In any case, my point is that gov’t has historically contributed to the rising problems with health in America, whether through promotion of faulty science and a one-size-fits all approach to nutrition for everyone, through farm subsidies that support the production of soy and corn that are used to produce processed, unhealthy foods, or through acceptance of the lobbying dollars of large drug companies.

    I have been told I’m a lefty loonie, but when it comes to health, I am hesitant to put much faith in the government to help us out. The best way they can help, in my opinion, is to funnel $$ to community-based organizations that can lead real change on the ground, and halt their support of big-ag via farm subsidies. Instead, the gov’t should support farmers that are growing healthy vegetables and fruits, and raising animals in a humane, natural way. Make it affordable for people to make the right choices, then let communities figure out how to educate parents, kids, etc. on why those foods are the right choices!

    Oh, and here’s an example of an awesome for-profit company in Toronto that is feeding real kids real food: Wouldn’t it be nice if these kinds of companies were the norm, instead of the exception? 🙂

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