About 75 million Americans care about eating healthy and spend around $60 billion annually attempting to do so. The average American will attempt to lose weight four times a year. Unfortunately, all this money is being spent on products such as misleading diet books, supplements, and meal replacements, none of which have shown sustainable weight loss maintenance.
As a society, we are currently figuring out how to make being healthy easier. A recent report from the University of Illinois entitled "Obesity and Economic Environments" challenged our assumptions on why we have poor health. As the authors stated, compared to the last 40 years, we currently do have more access to fruits and vegetables, are exercising more and have more leisure time to cook than in 1965, if we had the motivation and ability to do so.
Additionally, the report demonstrated that Americans pay less for food than ever before and that the distance to a supermarket is not a good predictor of the quality of a person's diet. The idea of just increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables in isolation and correlating it with decreased calorie intake was described as "wishful thinking."
What the authors identified to be the most important issue, more important than low fruit and vegetable consumption, is our access to convenient, low-priced, unhealthy food. The authors also took a systems approach to nutrition and mentioned how our current agricultural policies support unhealthy calories by making them cheap and abundant.
Healthy food needs to become easier to access, all while making unhealthy food harder to obtain. This should not be accomplished by prohibiting food, but rather by employing social and food science engineering for healthy food, which is currently being utilized by junk food companies.
Many nutrition advocates believe that scratch cooking is the best way to solve the problem. Michael Pollan, my "gateway" author into thinking more about other facets then just the nutritional content of food, covered the benefits of cookery in his book Cooked. Pollan was right on many fronts. When you cook you can control the ingredients, the processing and portion sizes. Cooking can be simple, healthy and even accomplished on a SNAP (Food Stamps) budget.
Cooking can help limit unhealthy food consumption. Items like fries, grain-based desserts, pizza and other decadent foods take time and labor to make. If you create these items yourself, you probably won't eat them on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. All these changes could cause decreased consumption of some of our highest sources of calories.
Food is also not just about nutrition. Food contains culture, history, pleasure and memories. The majority of Americans need help with the nutrition aspect of food; however, these other characteristics are important to consider and are strengthened by the art of cooking.
Despite the clear benefits of cooking, it is not a silver bullet for improving health and weight loss maintenance. I feel it is a myopic attitude to push only this route. Cooking is still out of reach for the average American. With recently published data that 29 million Americans are diabetic and another 86 million have prediabetes, healthy food needs to be as convenient as the same foods making us sick.
We need to work in the context of how people currently eat and prepare food. Forty-three percent of all food consumed is not eaten at home and 50 percent of families with kids say it is too hard to prepare a healthy meal. Only a dismal .098 percent of the U.S. population meets the USDA intake recommendations for fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and beans, dairy, and oils. Colby Vorland figured out even if we cut the recommended intake in half, the population meeting the goals jumps up only to 3.3 percent.
Compared to what was argued for last year in The Atlantic, reformulated fast food is not the solution to the obesity epidemic. We need actual healthy food in junk food style. Highly-marketed, already-prepared, enjoyable and affordable. Not the current options of low-fat donuts, real fruit smoothies with 54 grams of sugar or oatmeal with 32 grams of sugar.
Our marketing of healthy food needs to be updated too. Simply telling people the product is healthy is not working, especially with kids. As soon as possible we need to expose children to healthy food repeatedly. Negative stereotypes still abound with kids believing nutritious food cannot possibly taste good. Fun, taste and convenience are the aspects that should be marketed, while also limiting exposure to unhealthy food marketing, which impacts kid as young as 3 and 4.
I believe convenience is still the biggest reason people do not eat healthy, but price still drives consumers purchasing habits more than nutrition too. As a society we are accustomed to paying the lowest price possible for food. The task at hand is to balance short-term expense for long-term health benefits.
Even though we spend only 10 percent of our disposable income on food, for low-income families paying more for food is not feasible. An underlying objective as we progress with our nutrition public health campaign will be to make sure people have a living wage to buy healthy food. Also, to have polices in place to support low-income families so that they can acquire healthy food in the meantime, until they have such wages.
Our fear of utilizing technology to make food healthy also needs to be addressed. With good reason, we have been skeptical of processing and additives, but all processing is not created equal and the dose makes the poison. We could use appropriate processing to make food more convenient, tastier and legitimately healthy. As Kevin Klatt wrote, these new processed foods do need to "promote satiety, nutrient density, and longevity, while offering convenience, taste and overall consumer appeal."
Consumers do say they want convenient healthy food. Sixty-nine percent of grocery shoppers would like a store to carry healthy already-prepared meals, 80 percent would appreciate coupons for healthy food and 64 percent of consumers are interested in programs that recommend healthy products. We need to stand by our word and vote with our forks to show companies that these are the products we want.
A food-literate populace is an important solution to reversing our chronic disease rates, specifically educating people to find real nutrition and not a pig with lipstick on. As the American Society for Nutrition stated, "simply knowing or understanding what constitutes a healthy diet is not enough to change an individual's diet or lifestyle." Polices and built environment do matter and both can be used to help food companies be incentivized to make actual healthy food and to allow health to begin in our current surroundings.
If we can use food processing, marketing and engineering to create the ideal Dr. Pepper, I believe we can also use these tools to help people eat healthy. Instead of asking for large changes, let's meet people where they are and make healthy eating a daily reality whatever way possible.
Follow Daniel J. Schultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VegetableManDan