By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.
When it comes to the obesity epidemic, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos online survey found that 61% of adults believe personal choices about food and exercise play key roles in the obesity epidemic.
At one time, I thought the same. When I was a less experienced dietitian bent on changing other people’s eating habits for the better, I preached personal responsibility to anyone willing to listen. Now that I am older and, hopefully, wiser, I wonder if it’s even possible to make good choices about food and physical activity, living in what health experts have labeled our “obesogenic” environment that encourages us to eat more than we should and exercise less.
“Everywhere you go, from gas stations to malls to movie theaters, the sights and smells of French fries, cookies, popcorn, and other fatty foods makes it hard to resist the constant temptation to overeat and make poor food decisions,” says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition at WebMD.
It makes me wonder: Do you even stand a chance against becoming overweight even when motivated? The notion of personal choice is almost laughable, considering the odds.
“Willpower only goes so far,” Zelman says. “The environment tests your resolve to eat healthy all throughout the day.”
The Institute of Medicine’s recent Weight of the Nation report argues that people cannot truly exercise personal choice because their options are severely limited and choices are biased toward unhealthy options. I know what they mean.
In addition to food being available nearly everywhere, including at my local library, hardware store, and drycleaner, over-the-top portion sizes drive us to eat too much, too.
The problem with large servings is that our brains are not programmed to reject calories. Long ago, man was supposed to eat what he could when food was available because he never knew where his next meal was coming from. That’s not the case for most of us. Our brains have not yet evolved to adjust to the glut of calories available to us, all day long.
It doesn’t take much to become overweight with time. Eating just 50 to 100 extra calories – about the amount in one to two Oreo cookies – daily will do the trick.
Ultimately, it’s up to each and every one of us to choose our lifestyle habits, but it seems like it’s only getting harder to do the right thing.
“Advice to exercise sounds simple enough, but when there are no sidewalks or neighborhood parks for kids to play in, it’s discouraging,” Zelman says. “And it can be downright unsafe to exercise outside for some people.”
I can’t write a blog without offering alternatives to the problem I’m bemoaning, so here’s my advice: Until the outside environment changes, create a healthier environment at home for yourself and your family.
Establishing a haven for health eating helps to combat what goes outside the home. You can’t control the number of burger joints or pizza places in your town, but you can control whether you serve tater tots or the better alternative, a baked potato. You’re also in charge of portion sizes, and how much activity you and your family get.
Use these quick tips to get your home in order:
• Don’t keep items that tempt you to overeat in the house. You’re only asking for trouble.
• Always eat a balanced breakfast with plenty of protein to steel yourself against mid-morning energy slumps that can cause you to overeat. Protein keeps you fuller for longer. Protein rich foods include: fortified soy beverages, milk, Greek yogurt, eggs, and protein-added cereals, such as Special K Protein Plus cereal.
• Shop on a regular basis for healthy meal and snack ingredients and cook as much as possible at home to reduce ordering take-out or going out to eat.
• Tote healthy foods with you. Take your lunch to work or in the car on errands and keep portable snacks on hand, such as small boxes of California raisins, pistachios, and whole grain cereal.
• Move around as much as possible at home. Forget about multitasking. Make as many trips up and down stairs as possible. Do your own yardwork. Get up during TV commercials and walk around. All movement counts towards a healthier weight.
What do you do to avoid temptation and stay healthy? Share your tips in the comments below.