Consumers are bombarded with a plethora of healthy food products these days. This is particularly true in the United States, where decades defined by fast food are transitioning to forays into food technology that offer tailor-made meal plans to suit our lifestyle.
Indeed, eating healthy has never seemed easier. Fad diets promise everything from fast weight loss and improved energy to disease prevention. And “all natural” packaged foods tout health-saving ingredients and products made from non-genetically modified organisms (GMO).
But does all of this innovation mean Americans are actually eating and living healthier?
Not necessarily, say researchers. According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third (34.9 percent) of adults 20 years and older are obese. More than 8 percent of infants under the age of 2 were considered overweight, while 16.9 percent of children ages 2 to 19 were obese. And those obesity statistics aren’t a new phenomena, either. Studies conducted from 2003 to 2012 found that obesity stats for adults remained high, despite an increasing array of new “healthy” foods on the market and more dodgy dietary plans advertising smart eating options.
Even more concerning is the rise of obesity among women 60 and over. In five short years, obesity in that group has risen from 32 to 38 percent.
The good news, says Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, a nutritionist at the University of Georgia, is that obesity stats have dropped “significantly” for children aged 2 to 5, from 14 to 8 percent according to a 2011-2012 study. Johnson serves as the interim director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia. She is also the Bill and June Flat Professor in Foods and Nutrition at the university’s college of Family Sciences. She said researchers aren’t yet sure what caused the drop in early childhood obesity, but they suspect it has to do with the fact that school administrations and parents are taking a more active hand in diet and exercise plans.
“There is more alarm when [obesity] is found in children,” Johnson said, noting that parents are sometimes less focused on their own weight issues than they are on their children’s. The announcement some years earlier that weight problems were increasing in preschool children inspired both parents and school administrations to take a more active role in deciding what kids should eat and how much they should exercise. Many schools are implementing better meal plans that fall in line with the new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, Johnson told us. They are also ensuring that young kids get out and play more.
“It’s relatively new that some states are starting to adopt guidance for what should be the kinds of foods served, the serving sizes and things like that. So maybe that is really having an effect.”
Those standout statistics, however, are also helping researchers formulate a theory about why there is still a large problem with obesity in other sectors of the population.
For example, Johnson explained, there may not be the same impetus for people over 60 to change their diets or exercise more regularly as there is for kids. Society – consumers and health professionals alike – tend to be less concerned about an older person’s eating and exercise habits than a young child’s, even though they instinctually know “obesity is a problem that people need to take care of,” Johnson told us.
Obesity is hardly a problem that is isolated to the U.S. Dr. Wendy Van Lippevelde, a senior researcher at the Faculty of Medicine and Public Health of Ghent University in Belgium, put it this way:
“Obesity [and being] overweight are the result of a long-lasting positive energy balance with at one side too much energy intake and not enough energy expenditure.” Maintaining a healthy weight, Van Lippevelde explained, doesn’t just require good eating habits, but “enough physical activity and [establishing limits in] sedentary behavior.”
“I think the challenge for consumers is … the fact that our environment makes it so difficult to make the right healthy choice,” she told us. Tempting labels and TV commercials have considerable sway over consumer choices.
She said the European Union, like the U.S. and Canada, establish dietary guidelines for populations and schools to follow. Governments also provide subsidies to encourage healthy choices, but weight is still a serious problem. Two out of three adults are overweight.
Van Lippevelde is also a member of the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, a global organization of health professionals that study the relationship between nutrition and physical and mental health. While malnutrition is still a serious problem in impoverished communities, the ISBNPA notes “obesity is becoming epidemic worldwide.”
“Nutrition, physical activity, and sedentary activities are behaviors that play the most important role in the so called non-communicable diseases (responsible for 2 out of 3 of the world's deaths),” explained ISBNPA’s executive director, Dr. António Palmeira. “To tackle these diseases, one must learn more about these behaviors and how to develop effective and safe interventions. This is the important mission of the ISBNPA."
Here in the U.S., that research includes figuring out what comprises an ideal meal plan. Where the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendations were once fairly structured and included a one-size-fits-all view of the classic healthy American diet, recommendations are now changing, Johnson said. With the popularity of vegetarian, vegan and other diets that reflect individuals' own cultural leanings, the USDA now recognizes that personal eating habits need to be taken into consideration as well.
“It’s something I admit I have been resistant to,” Johnson explained: the idea of “thinking about people’s values.” After all, values, like the ethical decision not to eat meat, for example, aren’t what nutritionists normally think about when deciding on the perfect meal plan with enough protein. They think about “the science of health; what makes us healthy, what makes us sick,” she told us.
USDA’s recognition that healthy eating is defined by personal and cultural preferences is a big change, she said, but ultimately one that will hopefully make it easier for consumers to understand the nuts and bolts of eating a balanced diet in a technologically-driven world. The Mediterranean diet, with its focus on leaner protein sources like fish and limits on red meat, is now a centerpiece to the USDA’s recommendation -- although the agency also realizes that vegetarians and vegans, who may not eat many of the foods on that list, need guidance as well.
This change in USDA guidelines dovetails with new studies that suggest diet does have a role in many of the diseases that were once thought to be driven by hereditary or environmental factors. Alzheimer’s disease is now thought to be linked with higher levels of meat consumption. How much is considered safe is still a matter of debate. Researchers also found that people following the Mediterranean diet have a lower incidence of both Alzheimer’s and diabetes, which also affects the cardiovascular system.
“I don’t think diet will end up being the total answer” about how to combat Alzheimer’s or diabetes, Johnson cautioned, “but it will certainly be very important.”
The key to addressing nutritional risks like obesity, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, Johnson said, is education: giving consumers the tools to make good decisions. No one packaged food product or new fad diet is a magic bullet to great health. It’s balance.
“The overall energy intake really matters to our weight,” Johnson concluded. “I think we just haven’t emphasized that enough.”
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.