Changing Eating Habits: why is it so hard?

By: Jonathan Thompson

Changing - 1 (5)Yes, it is sensible for our government to be concerned about the health of the American people. Yet, the approaches taken to date have not led to better health and in fact some would say that they have contributed significantly to the obesity and overweight issue that are plaguing us today. So what can we do to help our family and friends find a route to better health?

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Said Edmund Burke. So let’s look to the past to avoid repeating the errors that have led us to our current plague.Changing - 1 (1)

In the years surrounding World War II, the United States government was shipping mass quantities of meat overseas to support the war effort and feed the soldiers in Europe and Asia. Back on the mainland, though, this created (pretty valid) concerns that the nation would run out of protein if the war went on. In response, the Department of Defense gathered a think-tank of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, food scientists, dieticians, and home economists and charged them with solving one problem. And it’s not the obvious one.

These men and women were not asked to find a new protein source. One had already been identified. No, this panel of experts was faced with this challenge: How do we convince Americans to start eating organ meat?Changing - 1 (4)

The nation had tons of “by-products”- hearts, kidneys, brains, stomachs, intestines, feet, ears, and heads of animals that had been processed into meat – all of which was still viable food. But Americans had long since lost their taste for such… earthy meats. So, how do we retrain the American public to eat these foods, products that they now find distasteful?Changing - 1 (2)

Here’s a better question: Why are we talking about this? Well, America – in fact, many nations – is currently faced with a similar challenge. Although we’ve seen modest improvements, obesity is still a global epidemic with rates more than doubling from 1980 to 2014. And, more troubling, childhood obesity is still a major problem, causing doctors to see conditions in children that are typically only reserved for much older populations.

But efforts have been made to help the situation. Food labels have been regulated, nutrition guidelines have been released and government funding has been given to programs that strive to help change the eating patterns of children. Still, the problem has not been solved.

Which brings us back to the WWII Committee on Food Habits – a group of brilliant experts, tasked with changing the eating habits of Americans. The war ended before their findings were put into action and, for many years, many of the Committee’s reports were lost. What they wrote, however, could give us powerful insight into how to successfully change eating habits.Changing - 2 (2)

Clearing The Road
One of the most notable ideas that the Committee wrote on was the value of removing barriers to consumption. This could include anything that gets in the way and discourages people from eating any given food – price, unfamiliarity, psychological concerns, taste, appearance, etc.

In fact, the Committee – and subsequent research – found that incentive-based approaches are much less effective than clearing the nutritional path. These incentives could include educational efforts – aimed at making people understand the pros and cons of their food choices – or governmental grants designed to encourage healthier diets. These programs, according to the research, do have their place – once the boundaries have been removed. Yet, for them to work at all they must be credible and we must be positive that the outcome will be what is desired.

Okay, so then how do we remove any nutritional stumbling blocks when it comes to healthful eating? The first two keys are to make them available and familiar.Changing - 3 (1)

It may seem obvious that in order to encourage healthy eating, the food has to be present – and it is obvious – but this step is still not being taken in many communities. Often, it is difficult to find healthy options. Or, after they are tracked down, they are much more expensive than their more “traditional” cousins.

But then there’s the issue of familiarity. Even if a healthy food is easily accessible, if someone does not understand how to eat it, they are unlikely to make it part of their routine. On the large scale of things, this means packaging healthy items in a way that makes them seem similar to the less healthy options.Changing - 1 (7)

Building on this concept, the Committee on Food Habits decided that for a food to be readily accepted it must fit into their neat little acronym, SAFE.

Selected – The food must be picked and brought into the house, an idea   we’ll discuss later.

Available

Familiar

Expect – Once you purchase and prepare the food, it should taste the way you expected it to taste. No (unpleasant) surprises.

But the Committee identified another particularly interesting aspect of food habits that you can put into practice.

The Gatekeeper
Back in WWII the Committee on Food Habits recognized that changing food habits has to happen in two stages; Efforts need to be taken on both the governmental and household levels. In fact, the Committee concluded that no amount of national campaigns could be successful unless the individuals were willing to change. This means that, while the government plays a role in how we eat, we make the ultimate decision.

And the Committee was able to narrow their focus on one key player in this whole drama, someone they dramatically deemed “the gatekeeper.” This was the individual who was responsible for bringing food into the house and preparing it. In order to effectively change eating habits, the Committee stated, you have to influence the gatekeeper.Changing - 2

So, if you’re the gatekeeper for your family (or yourself), what can you do? In many areas, healthy, affordable options are available – but not necessarily familiar. Fortunately, with resources on the internet and TV, educating yourself is not as formidable as it used to be.

What if you have picky eaters to worry about? Try sticking these same principles, selecting SAFE foods, for your family. You might switch out bison for beef, for example. Or lower sugar cereals. Just remember to make the changes gradually and don’t try anything that’s drastically different from what they’re used to.
Changing - 2 (3)

As long as you don’t put a cow’s head on the table, following the committee’s advice will help you lead your family to new healthier eating habits.

References:
http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/EatingWWII-JPPM-2002.pdf
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-trends/