I’ve had to deal with a steep learning curve in my life when it comes to nutrition. Like many children in my generation and socio-economic class, I was raised on processed food like Spam and SpaghettiOs. When my parents took the family out to eat, we went to places like McDonald’s—simple, fast food that was easy on the wallet.
Since then, I’ve had my work cut out for me to cope with unhealthy cravings. I know, logically, that potato chips and chocolate aren’t great for my health, but salt and sugar were an integral part of my diet in the early years and it’s extremely hard to break such deeply ingrained habits. Although I’m now aware of what comprises a healthy diet, I often find myself turning to junk food when I’m feeling stressed or sad. It’s comforting, unfortunately, and it has contributed to my life-long struggle with weight management.
My story is not unique. Millions of Americans were raised just like me—on quick fast food outings and packaged meals. In turn, they raise their children on nutrient-poor food and the cycle continues.
To make matters worse, people are working longer and harder than ever to support themselves and their families. Poverty rates continue to soar, leading to the purchase of “quick meals,” which tend to be highly processed (great for manufacturers’ bottom line, not so great for the consumer). Not only is processed food the most convenient to buy, but it is the easiest, cheapest way to feed a family when wages are low, and the hours spent working are excessive.
This exposure to poor nutrition has led to a surge in obesity across the country, in both children and adults. Along with obesity comes a wide range of health problems, from heart disease to chronic joint pain to hypertension. We’re seeing a severe rise in type 2 diabetes and, according to the American Diabetes Association, “By the year 2050, one in three people will have diabetes.”
So, what’s the solution to poor nutrition and obesity?
No one can seem to agree. There are thousands of reports on the varying causes and effects published by doctors, nutritionists, government entities, food manufacturers, healthcare advocates, diet centers and more. Obesity isn’t simply about eating the wrong foods, or eating too much. Factors contributing to obesity span the gamut between poverty and heredity, with many variables in between.
But, one thing most entities can agree upon is that education is an important factor in combating obesity and poor nutrition. Oftentimes, people are simply unaware of which foods to incorporate into their diet in order to get optimal nutrition. Or, they may not know how to cook a meal from scratch (beyond opening up a box of mac ‘n’ cheese or microwaving a frozen burrito). If you’ve never learned how to cook with vegetables or prepare fresh fruit, you’re likely going to feel intimidated by the whole process.
Education is also key in helping people understand the link between poor nutrition and health problems. It can help illustrate the problems associated with obesity and motivate people to take action and make positive lifestyle changes.
A practical nutrition education also helps people see through the “quick fixes” and fad diets that we so often see in overly-peppy, cure-all commercials on T.V. Although weight loss companies claim that a special smoothie or a diet pill or an abdominal belt will fix your obesity woes, the solution is rarely so simple. At the core of the problem is lack of education and an over-worked, over-stressed workforce that doesn’t prioritize nutrition.
So, how to educate the populace?
I wish there were an easy answer. Several healthcare programs exist (both private and government-run) that provide outreach services to the community. Since first lady Michelle Obama is a major proponent of nutrition education, that arena has received a boost in funding and influence at a federal level.
Some of the major health-centered organizations include:
- Public Health Departments (WIC, maternal and child health, health promotion and disease prevention units)
- Let’s Move
- Social/human service agencies
Nutrition and food assistance programs
- Student health services
- Nutrition and health education curriculum
Day care centers and Head Start Programs
- Child and Adult Care Food Program
- Community not-for-profit organizations
Voluntary Health Organizations
Health care organizations
- Community health centers
- Managed Care Organizations (HMOs)
- Home health agencies
The number of nutrition and personal wellness resources available may seem overwhelming, but it’s okay to start small. Start with YOURSELF and YOUR FAMILY. Make conscious choices when planning your next meal; be aware of the benefits of a healthy diet and the consequences of a poor one. In order to make a systemic change, we have to start small—one complete meal at a time.