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It’s Not Your Fault – Why Healthy Eating Is So Hard

Shannon Harvey
This is a conversation I heard between New Jersey bus driver and an elderly Chinese passenger on a bus bound for New York City.

Driver: “Hey, how you doing? Last time I saw you, you were headed to Old Bridge. Where you going today?”
Passenger: “Oh there’s a guy I’ve got to see in Freehold. How have you been?”
Driver: “Not so good. I’ve got the diabetes”
Passenger: “Oh, that’s not so good.”
Driver: “Yeah, and now I’m trying to eat right, but I’m so confused. I don’t know what to eat. Like I thought I could get some of that sugar free gum, but now they say it messes with you pancreas or whatever. I don’t know. And working this job, I can’t get anything to eat. It’s all processed. It’s all junk. I can’t get a vegetable to save my life.”
Passenger: “Yeah it’s craaaaazy.”

Their conversation reminded me that you don’t need to be a health journalist like I am to know that the world has gone mad when it comes to the supply of readily available healthy food. I wanted to join them and exclaim “I’m having the exact same problem!” As filmmaker Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame wrote in Don’t Eat This Book, “Americans today spend about 90 percent of their food budget on processed food. And processed food isn’t really food, it’s chemicals. It’s like a huge science experiment.”

I was traveling in the US to shoot my new film and I didn’t have my usual healthy eating strategies in place. As an evidence-based health journalist with a chronic autoimmune disease which is worsened by unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, I usually eat a real food diet, which means that I try to mostly eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. But while I was on the road, it was difficult to find anything that fitted that description.

My point is, so often when we get diagnosed with a chronic illness we start asking, what have I done wrong? How have I caused this? I should have taken care of myself better. And when our efforts to eat right, or stress less, or get more sleep are derailed, we think of ourselves as weak-willed or flawed. But as I wrote in my post Will Vs Skill: Making Healthy Changes Last, the evidence shows that self-control alone isn’t the key to staying healthy, especially when it comes to food.

In this crazy, messed up, modern world, where processed food manufacturers are at the top of food chain, eating healthy food is hard work. With thanks to abundantly available fast-food and models-turned celebrity lifestyle gurus endorsing the consumption of an entire block of chocolate after a hard-day at work, our perception of moderation is skewed, and junk food becomes normalized. These triggers around us – people, packages, product names and labels – unconsciously but profoundly influence what we put into our mouths.

Of course, the food manufactures have a good argument. They say they only make what we want to buy. Case in point: I was on the bus that day, traveling back from a university in New Jersey. The night before I has screened my previous film and I had been invited to eat my meals in the student cafeteria. I was impressed by the healthy eating options on offer; fresh salads, fresh vegetable stir fries cooked right in front of me by a smiling chef, steamed vegetables with delicious spices, a choice of brown or white rice, vegetable curries and hearty soups. For this travel weary, vegetable deprived health journalist, it was a haven. But when I looked around on the plates of the students, most of them had chosen to eat the pizza, the fries, and the deep fried hot wings that were also on offer at the buffet.

I get it. When you’re a student and your head is full of term paper deadlines, or training schedules, or the complexity of your college social life, there’s not much room left to think, “I’m choosing the steamed vegetables because in ten years I don’t want metabolic syndrome.” Fries are more appetizing than broccoli.

This is why I’m constantly on the look out for proven strategies to make healthy choices seem effortless. It turns out that small tweaks in our environment can help tip the balance in our favor. Cornell University researchers from the Food and Brand Lab conducted a field study in two high school cafeterias to test whether environmental tweaks could inspire kids to choose healthier foods. The changes they made included publishing an appetizing healthy lunch menu with colour photos of fruits and vegetables, displaying the fresh fruit in nice bowls or tired stands, and having the cafeteria staff prompt the kids by saying, “Would you like to try…” After the lunchroom makeover the students ate 18 percent more fruits and 25 percent more vegetables.

The Cornell team call this strategy C.A.N – Convenient, Attractive, Normal and they came up with it after a 2015 analysis of 112 studies found that most healthy eaters made their choices because foods such as fruits and vegetables were visible and easy to reach, enticingly displayed, and made them seem like obvious choices.

When I’m at home, I keep fresh fruit and vegetables on display on my kitchen bench. I’ve got a pantry jam packed with enticingly visible whole-food snacks. I’ve also got favourite websites I order these foods from so they are super easy to re-stock and I save money by buying in bulk. In order to make meal planning seem easy, I keep a written list of family-favourites on a Post-It note on my fridge so that when I’m trying to think of what to cook, I can quickly scan it for ideas.

Unfortunately all my careful planning and strategising went out the window when I was on my whirl-wind trip through the US. I put on almost two kilograms (three pounds) in under three weeks. When the two men parted ways on the bus bound for New York City, the passenger paused before disembarking:

Passenger: “I wish you well finding your vegetables.”
Driver: “I’m trying’. I’m trying’.”

Me too, I thought.

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