Curbing Obesity in America- Is It Possible?
Since when did education and prevention become politically dirty words?
Is our country so divided that encouraging our kids to eat their vegetables is now a form of government intrusion on our rights?
Michelle Obama has been criticized for her LET’S MOVE! campaign which encourages healthier meals in our schools, urges families to eat more fruits and vegetables, and stresses the need for daily exercise. Jamie Oliver, chef and food activist, was criticized for his food revolution attempting to transform eating habits in towns and schools.
Critics say our government has no right to tell people what they should or shouldn’t eat. Tell that to the Monsanto corporations of the world reaping profits from government subsidies on corn and soy.
These misguided vocal missiles need to be targeted at the real terrorists of our food system. Big agriculture companies and factory farms who distort the truth to lobby for your tax dollars. They’re the reason chips are cheaper than apples! They’re the reason the GMO labeling bill failed to pass in California this election.
This weekend my husband and I went out to breakfast for the first time in ages. This family style restaurant had a large breakfast menu with a section called “The Healthier Side.” Whenever I see a small menu section labeled as “healthy,” I immediately wonder what hidden title is missing from the majority of the menu. Should it be labeled, “The Unhealthy Side”?
Most people ignore healthier fare options in mainstream restaurants. First, there is a social psychology phenomenon in place because everyone around is ordering the “regular” food so denial is effortless. It’s human nature to assume you’re giving up taste, quantity, or satisfaction by selecting from the tiny “healthier fare” section. The craving for cheese, fat, salt and sugar is so strong it overrides any intellectual “on the spot” analysis.
Restaurants are compelled to segregate food that’s good for you (or at least less harmful). Why? Because including a few “heart friendly” options gives the appearance of social consciousness. Healthy folks, frustrated with the lack of healthy choices when eating out, cook more at home so their forks aren’t registering a vote.
Even for me, it takes serious discipline to order a healthier option when menus flaunt the high fat, high calorie choices with close-up pictures.
We’re in a perpetuating cycle. Restaurants meet demands and the public is not demanding healthier fare. By pleasing the masses with supersized, high fat food, waiting lines extend out the door.
How do we get Americans to care? To change their habits? To influence businesses to lead the change?
Here’s the 10 step plan I’d recommend:
1. Calories, saturated fat, and sodium listed on all menus and menu boards.
Make an informed choice on the spot. Harder to deny facts staring you in the face. This may even urge restaurants to cook traditional dishes in healthier ways.
2. Simplify food labels.
See My Dream Food Label by Mark Bittman published in The New York Times, October 2012. Instead of trying to decipher ingredients and determine what’s healthy and what’s not, let the experts do that for you and provide the conclusion at a glance.
3. Serve only healthy food in schools.
Schools are supposed to educate. By only serving food that is healthy fuel, schools are teaching nutrition by example. Don’t serve green beans and french fries and expect kids to choose the green beans. By exposing children from a young age to healthy food, every child is given the chance to learn about good nutrition regardless of what’s happening at home. In many cases, this may be a child’s only opportunity for healthy food throughout the day. Rally parents support. Request they not send their kids to school with high sugar, junk food because it affects their performance.
4. Lower medical insurance premiums for fit people.
Instead of discriminating against overweight folks, give financial incentives to lose weight and exercise regularly. When they do, lower their out of pocket expense. Everyone wins. Insurance companies should reward those who stay fit, especially as they age. I was rejected for medical insurance a few years back because of a minor foot ailment even with ideal blood work and perfect health. The foot ailment was caused from running to stay fit! When I was approved, it was a higher premium.
5. Eliminate P.E. classes in schools.
Yes, you read that right. Everything about our physical education classes is wrong in America. They are a disciplinary nightmare for teachers because of large class sizes. Time (and sometimes space) is limited so they can’t play a real game and involve everyone at the same time. It’s normal for students to want to socialize when out of class. Overweight kids learn to hate P.E. and feel even worse about themselves. Dreading mandatory participation in the “Presidential Fitness Challenge” and the timed mile on the track where they are publicly humiliated. The kids who need it most are learning to despise exercise.
I propose the following instead:
- The morning mile: An option to walk a mile with your friends before classes start to earn extra credit. A time to socialize, get the blood flowing before class, and learn the importance of moving. Outdoors around school perimeter unless the weather is dangerously bad. Possibly add this midday as a movement and interaction break.
- Health and nutrition class: Required at least one semester in elementary, middle and high school. Start out teaching basics of nutrition and how to recognize marketing tactics. Teach real world application with menus and nutrition labels. Link fitness and nutrition choices to disease prevention in high school. Bring in passionate guest speakers and athletes.
- Schedule fitness field trips: In place of traditional P.E. class, occasionally take kids on an adventure or fitness excursion (i.e. rock wall, hike, weight training facility, professional sports arena). Show students that fitness can be fun.
- Fund after school sports: Make sure there are less competitive, recreational opportunities for every child who wants to participate.
6. Tax junk food.
Taxing junk food not only brings in much needed revenue but can influence personal choice. We tax cigarettes that put our health at risk. Why not junk food that does the same? If junk foods were more expensive, it would serve as a reminder that those items are occasional “treats” and not the foundation of our diets.
7. Switch government subsidies.
Transfer government subsidies to fresh fruits and vegetables and away from the sugars, corn, soy and GMO products. Many of these subsidized products extend the shelf life of packaged junk food or are used to feed livestock. Make healthy food less expensive. Period.
8. Train palates young.
Similar to learning a language, if you are exposed to the right foods early on, it is much easier to lock in good habits. Feed babies low sugar, low sodium food as soon as they’re weaned. Avoid baby food “combo meals” that sound like adult dinners (i.e. spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese franks, etc.). Stick with pure vegetables and fruits and always serve the vegetables first when they are most hungry.
Ditch the children’s boxed cereals, pop tarts, and juice boxes. Stick with wholesome foods we can access as adults, including at restaurants. Children’s menus are a disgrace. Ask for half orders or take home and freeze leftovers. If possible, build a garden with your children. Visit farmer’s markets together and get excited about good food and cooking as a family!
9. Give tax breaks and incentives to open up healthy food restaurants.
Changing the nation’s taste buds takes time. Giving healthy eateries a jump start would help them get rolling.
10. Make nutrition education mandatory in our medical schools.
Our health providers need to take the lead utilizing proven nutritional regimens for disease prevention and treatment. Insurance companies need to support these treatment options through reimbursement. How about a healthy recipe instead of a prescription!
To all those critics out there who think Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, or I am invading your rights, the truth is they’re invading ours.
Skyrocketing health care costs partially attributed to heart disease and Type II diabetes which are at epidemic levels. We have thousands of over medicated children whose behavior is influenced by a poor diet. Low income families whose dollar goes further buying subsidized junk food instead of affordable fresh produce.
If we really care about the health of this country, we better care about the health of all people living in it. We all deserve a piece of this pie: Prevention, Incentive, and Education.