Monday, July 18, 2011

Encouraging healthy eating habits in new ways

Photo by Darren Hester
I'm not sure that the findings of the study Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores: Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study should come as a surprise.   According to the extract,
Greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed.
While reading the LA Times article about the study, I had this nagging question in the back of my mind:   Isn't the change we seek in eating habits and weight as much about modeling and knowing what to do as it is about retailers making more healthy options available?

Surprise, surprise, Jamie Oliver had the answer:

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, an outspoken advocate of healthful eating, said in an email that shopping at supermarkets did not automatically translate to good choices.

"If you go into most grocery stores across America, the majority of the store is chock-full of processed food calling out to you from the packages, 'Pick me! I'm tastier and more convenient,'" Oliver wrote. "And ringed around all this are good old veggies, with no instructions."

The idea that people instinctively know what to do with, let alone know how to select, fresh fruit and vegetables is silly and results in a missed opportunity for information sharing and behavior change strategy implementation.

Take the birth mother I worked with at a private child welfare agency while I was getting my Master's of Social Work at Howard.   At supervised visits with her children, the birth mom would bring candy, cookies, chips, and sugar water (you know, the ones in the little barrels).   The kids loved it; none of these were staples in the foster family's home.

The visits were an opportunity to work on improving her parenting skills and being a mom, not the best friend.   Related to the latter, this meant providing healthy snacks rather than sugar filled goodies.   Mom said she didn't know how to pick out fruits and vegetables.   I admitted I didn't either.   So off to the grocery store we went and spent a good bit of time with the produce manager, sniffing, thumping, squeezing, and tasting.

At subsequent family visits, mom and I learned together what fruits and vegetables the kids liked and how to best serve them to encourage consumption.   She also learned when it was okay to give them a limited amount of sugary snacks.

The District government, the private sector and the community have already done a tremendous amount toward the goals of reducing obesity and improving health outcomes by improving eating habits.   But more needs to be done.   More doesn't have to be expensive, but it's got to be grounded in a theory of behavior change married to cool ideas.

Speaking for myself, knowing how to fix tasty dishes with fresh local produce is essential.   If it's true for me, might be for others.   How can community gardens and organizations providing fresh food, for example, share recipes or tips via Facebook, Twitter and websites?   Can we share recipes in a way that moves people along the "completely bad for you" to "way better for you" continuum?   Can we encourage organizations to serve only or at least a majority of healthy food at community meetings?

Have an idea how to influence behavior change?   Let me know and I'll blog the ideas.

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