Nutrition Culture: Improving Nutrition in Our Communities and Countries
Promoting a New Nutrition Culture
Have you ever gone on a diet or tried to improve your nutrition, and after a period of success, you go right back to your destructive eating habits? My guess is that would describe a lot of us. This is because everywhere you go, temptation gnaws at you. It jumps out at you from a commercial on TV, it accosts your senses as you pass by a bakery, you may even dream about it. Plus, you look around and it seems like everyone else is doing it. Well, he’s eating a massive plate of cheese fries and he still has tons of energy. She’s pounding that bowl of ice cream and she still looks great, why can’t I? Now, this may seem like a weak rationale, and we certainly should try to build up our self control, but maintaining a healthy personal nutrition culture is difficult when the greater culture that surrounds us is pushing back.
A decade ago I was on a service based mission in Armenia. Part of our purpose there was to help people stop smoking. This proved to be extremely difficult. Not only were the cigarettes and cigars prepared with very strong tobacco, but everyone smoked and they did it everywhere. We found that people might stop smoking for a little while, but inevitably they relapsed into the behavior. Furthermore, there weren’t many products or resources out there to help people overcome their tobacco addiction.
Similarly, when an unhealthy nutrition culture permeates our society, we find it very difficult to change our eating and drinking habits. In order to achieve our personal nutrition goals and help those around us, we need to take steps to improve the nutrition culture in our community. It may not be possible to get everyone onboard, but creating environments, experiences, and attitudes that support good nutrition will make it vastly easier to increase our healthy consumption and habits.
Fortunately, we already see an increase in restaurants whose menus are either entirely healthy or offer a section of healthier choices. Grocery stores are beginning to offer a wider variety of nutritious foods. We need to support these establishments and promote more that are like them. If there are more opportunities to experience healthier eating, we stand a better chance at maintaining a good nutrition culture without having to sacrifice our social lives.
The Allure of Junk Food
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in our quest for nutrition is the snack and junk food industry. Many people make their livelihood off of selling unhealthy, addictive food. The disastrous feature of so many of these foods is their vanishing caloric density. This is when we can eat large amount of chips, popcorn, or candy, and don’t ever feel full. It seems like we’re eating nothing because our brains don’t register that we’re consuming anything. So we eat an entire bag of popcorn and are still hungry. This offers us almost no nutrition but is highly damaging to our systems.
An old tagline from Pringles commercials touted, “Once you pop, you don’t stop.” This is soberingly true. Often, once you have one chip, once you take one bite of a cookie, you just keep going until the snack has been depleted or you finally realize that you need to stop. Such formulated products are highly destructive to our health. It’s difficult to push back against an industry that relies on people to make poor choices to make money, but as in all arenas, there can always be healthier replacements and alternatives.
Another way to better nutrition in our societies is to be supportive of others who are striving to change. Make others feel comfortable about the goals they are trying to achieve and don’t hinder them by offering them junk food or putting them in situations where good nutritional choices are non existent. As we recognize the benefits of healthier consumption, we should reach out to others to try to educate and encourage.
Attempting to change the larger nutrition culture will take time and tenacity, but as more people become aware of the health crises facing many of our communities, we can take action to ensure positive nutrition for ourselves and those around us.
The Current Culture of More
I the 2004 documentary “Supersize Me,” Morgan Spurlock ate only food from McDonald’s over a 30 day period. Every time he was offered the option to supersize his meals he forced himself to accept. This resulted in weight gain of 24 pounds and negative affects to his mood and psychological state. It took 14 months for him to lose the weight he had gained in just one month.
Many of us live in a culture of increasing portion sizes, of eating until you can’t eat any more. Tactics used by restaurants and food companies have conditioned us to think that if we don’t have a massive amount of food before us or available to us, we aren’t getting our money’s worth.
Money is another interesting factor in one’s journey to improving nutrition culture. Many of us believe that healthy food is generally more expensive. By volume, this is usually true, especially if we are buying the specialized diet foods. Take, for example, a package of edamame pasta I bought a few weeks ago. It was purportedly extremely healthy, with 24 grams of protein per serving, but it was also incredibly expensive. Also, it was disgusting.
But if you buy the right foods, in my opinion, buying healthier food actually saves you money. Let’s say you buy a package of Ramen Noodles. This quintessentially inexpensive food costs about 30 cents for a package containing two servings. That’s 15 cents per serving, which is, of course, very cheap. But compare this to a can of pinto beans, which costs around 25 cents per serving. A serving of pinto beans has 6 grams of protein, while Ramen Noodles has 4. You would have to eat one and a half servings of noodles to equal the protein found in the beans, which brings the cost up to about 23 cents. Okay, the noodles are still cheaper. But then we look at the dietary fiber. The pinto beans have 7 grams of fiber while the Ramen Noodles have less than 1 gram. For ease of comparison, let’s just say the noodles have 1 gram of fiber. With this assumption, you would have to eat 7 servings of Ramen Noodles to equal the amount of fiber in one serving of pinto beans. That increases your cost to $1.05, and you’d be consuming 1330 calories of noodles in comparison to 90 calories of pinto beans. So while a serving of Ramen Noodles is cheaper than a serving of pinto beans, you’re getting more nutritional value for your money with the pinto beans. Furthermore, whole wheat flour is about twice as much as white flour. But I’ve found that the things I make with whole wheat flour fill me up much more effectively than those items made with white flour. In terms of buying our food, we need to consider quality over quantity.
In addition to saving money on groceries, by consuming healthier products, we are potentially saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars on doctor visits or productivity lost when we are sick. Giving our bodies needed nutrients and vitamins proactively protects us against illness and fatigue. By striving to be aware of appropriate portion sizes, buying nutritionally rich foods, and being mindful of when we are actually full instead of just eating out of boredom or until we’re overstuffed, we can improve our nutrition as well as cut back on the costs of buying excess and unneeded food.
Into the Mouths of Babes
“If you have three more bites of macaroni and cheese, then I’ll give you a cookie!”
I find myself saying things like this all the time. Why am I urging my two-year-old to eat unhealthy food so I can reward her with more unhealthy food?
Many of our bad eating habits start when we’re children. Just consider the things that we classify as “kid food.” Macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, juice boxes and packs, and pizza. These are all ultra processed, convenience foods that we give to children because it’s easy and we often think that they won’t eat anything else. We need to change this thinking. It may require a little extra effort, but most kids are not so picky that they won’t eat a variety of foods which can include healthier options.
We all know trying to get kids to try new things and simply eat their food is sometimes a struggle, and this is why we resort to bribing them with treats. I’m a firm believer that there’s always a time and place for a rewards system, but if we continually offer children treats in exchange for finishing their meals, we’re engendering a habit that makes them believe they should be rewarded for eating their food. Perhaps this is why many of us feel that we should get dessert after every meal, because we deserve it. We need to remember that the reward for eating healthy food is good health!
Alternately, when we force kids to consume healthful food, it can become a negative experience and further discourage them from making good choices about food in the future. If the pressure to eat their vegetables constantly brings tears to their eyes, they might carry those negative emotions into adulthood and develop strong aversions to nutrients that would otherwise benefit them.
When we force kids to consume healthful food, it can become a negative experience and further discourage them from making good choices about food in the future.
When nourishing the younger generation, we should encourage them to eat a wider variety of healthier choices, but still be patient and realistic about what they will and will not eat. Sometimes even the best efforts will be in vain, and at the end of the day they need to eat something, even if it is a hot dog. Nevertheless, we should strive to create positive experiences for children concerning healthy food and educate them about their nutrition as best we can so they will hopefully learn to make good nutritional decisions in their future.
Hopefully it is now clear what we are facing in terms of our nutrition and how we can go about making changes. Overcoming our personal and global nutrition culture is not an easy task. It won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without a lot of effort, but now that we’ve identified the elements that contribute to it, we can begin to change destructive habits and behaviors. As with any goal, achieving better health for ourselves and our communities will require commitment and patience.
Our nutrition culture is influenced by multiple intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and in order to change that culture we need to examine and evaluate each of those behaviors. We need to consider the emotions that pull us toward certain foods and overwrite them with more positive and meaningful feelings and influences. By rewriting our emotional connections to food, we can begin to let go of cravings and triggers that trap us in cycles of poor health.
The broader nutrition culture is beginning to change as people become more cognizant of the negative impacts of a society obsessed with convenience and satiating cravings. It will be hard to push back against attractive consumption experiences and bargain processed foods, but when we consider the larger picture we’ll hopefully be motivated to make better choices regarding our nutrition and encourage the younger generation to do so as well.
There are many messages and influences battling to get your attention, both in favor of your nutritional health and in favor of satisfying your cravings. New research, studies, fad diets, supplements, and even nutrition labeling can be confusing. In the end, often the best practice is to use common sense and pay attention to how certain foods make you feel in the long run, (not in the moment) and build your nutrition around those foods and products that contribute to your physical and mental health.
Now it's time to make some changes. You can learn about ways to improve your health all day long, but they won’t do you any good unless you apply them. Take responsibility for your nutrition culture. Your health is in your hands.
Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food by Rachel Herz
Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us by Matt Fitzgerald
© 2018 Lauren Flauding