Which would you rather spend your money on—food or doctors’ bills? According to the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics, combined spending on health care and food totaled 29.4% of the national income in 1960 -- 24.3% spent on food and 5.1% spent on health care. In 2010, the combined spending was 28%, but the portions flip-flopped --18.2% was spent on health care and 9.8% on food.
While regular checkups and tests to maintain a sound body and mind are important, so is what we feed ourselves and our families. By taking a closer look at what we eat every day, we can gain better insight into why we may not be feeling our best. What we put into our bodies is one of the keys to good health, and it starts with being responsible about the food we eat. Before heading out to your local grocer, here are a few things to consider.
Thirty years ago, the vast majority of meals were prepared at home. Today, the National Restaurant Association has found that Americans eat out almost five times per week. Even when we are eating at home, the processed food outweighs the fresh food by 787 pounds per year to 602 pounds per year according to a report by the New York Times in 2010. How exactly did Americans make this shift from fresh fare to processed foods? Be it lifestyle changes, the desire to preserve food for longer periods of time or a move away from farm life to city living, this shift has edged people away from eating off the land and eating factory-produced meals instead.
We can see this shift in our waistlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Georgia’s overall obesity rate of people with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 was 29.6% in 2010, compared to 10% to 14% in 1985. Dr. Christopher Griffith, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, says the childhood obesity epidemic has been on the rise for the last 30 years. “In recent decades, we have seen a proliferation of fast food establishments and junk food options in our communities,” he says.
In addition to this increase in the availability of junk food, processed foods are lower in cost, greater in variety and larger in portion size than ever before. Simply put, it seems easier to order a pizza or swing by the local drive-thru than it is to cook a meal consisting of local produce and meats. According to “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, Americans spent $6 billion on fast food in 1970, and in 2000 they spent more than $110 billion. What we may be saving in the short term (the cost of the pizza and the time in the kitchen) is costing us more in the long-term with increases in medical bills and health issues. Dr. Griffith continues, “These fatty and sugar-laden foods are often inexpensive and readily available, and children’s palates have been trained to crave them.”
The consequences of poor food choices are staggering: Today nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese, and according to the CDC, obesity prevalence has tripled since 1980. As a result, many children will face an array of obesity-related health problems such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, just to name a few.
Good Choices Start at Home
As parents, we have the responsibility to make good choices. With childhood obesity levels at an all time high in this country, it is more important than ever to break the cycle of poor food choices. Changing the way we think about eating might seem like a simple idea, but it can be difficult to do when we are inundated with a variety of seemingly easy, fast and inexpensive alternatives to healthy food.
Start by planning a healthy meal each time you set out to purchase food. Questioning the nutritional value of the food you are putting in your grocery basket is the first step you can take toward making healthy choices today for a better tomorrow. Don’t recognize the myriad of ingredients on that box of instant macaroni? Then why feed it to your family? While shopping organic may not be a realistic option for everything, selecting real food is.
So how can parents address healthy eating habits for their children without setting them up for eating disorders later in life? “The best way parents can promote a healthy and balanced lifestyle for their children is by role modeling healthy habits themselves,” says Wendy Palmer, a registered dietician and program manager at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Children are heavily shaped by the eating habits and activity behaviors they see at home. When it comes to food, the key is to remain positive at meal times and promote healthy choices without over-restricting the less-healthy foods.”
Ready to Eat
As the next generation starts making food choices on their own, it’s necessary they understand the importance of eating a well-balanced meal made of real food.
“Since children are constantly growing and there is no ‘one size fits all’ portion size, we encourage parents to talk to their children during meal time to help them recognize their own hunger and fullness cues,” Palmer says. “Allowing children to serve themselves from an early age, as well as not forcing them to clean their plate, can foster their innate ability to regulate their appetite and quantity of food. If appropriately active, children should come to mealtime with a good appetite. However, if they are consistently eating more snacks and food at meals than the adults in the household, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider.”
Also make sure that your family’s healthy habits continue even when you are not at home. This includes daycare, school, babysitters, friend’s parents and grandparents. “Remember, food does not equal love, so find alternative ways to reward children,” she says. “Never punish by denying food or using treats as incentives for good behavior.”
Ann Whitaker, RD, LD, CDE, supervisor of nutrition services at Kaiser Permanente of Georgia adds that mealtime should not be a war. “Stimulate interest in eating by having children help with the planning and preparation of food and letting them serve themselves when possible,” she says. “Having a small garden could help. Threatening children to get them to eat will make them associate food with an unpleasant experience and avoid it even more. Never use food as a reward or punishment because it can cause problems later on.”
According to the American Heart Association, some great ways to encourage good habits include: making a game of reading food labels - the whole family will learn what’s good for their health and be more conscious of what they eat. Instead of rewarding children with TV, video games, candy or snacks for a job well done, try to find other ways to celebrate good behavior like spending quality time together playing outdoors or seeing a movie.
Although we cannot hope to reverse poor eating habits overnight, we can move forward in a positive way, with open minds and take more of an interest in where our food is coming from. This is one of the first steps toward reversing this epidemic we face and returning to eating real food again.
Your Healthy Eating Plan & Action Guide
Change can start the minute you leave your home and head out to buy food for your next meal. Armed with knowledge on fresh food and a desire to eat better, try putting these thoughts to action.
Ready To Shop
If you want to fill your body with nutrient-rich food that helps you function at your optimal level, then you’re half way there. The next step is to get rid of anything in your refrigerator that doesn’t help you to achieve that goal and replace it with food that will. Consider visiting your local farmers market to purchase produce. This way you’ll be able to talk to the people who grow the food and ask them about their methods or if they use pesticides.
Author Michael Pollan sites several helpful tips in his book “Food Rules.” Among them is “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Chances are Grandma grew her own food, or knew the farmer that sold it to her. If having a garden or frequenting a farmers market is not a realistic choice for you, then consider another easy reference to use when shopping: My Plate. In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture replaced the food pyramid with a new visual aid called My Plate. Using My Plate as a guide, half your grocery list for the week should be fruits and vegetables, 1/4 should be protein and 1/4 should be grains, as well as a mix of low fat dairy products.
Ann Whitaker of Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, offers some tips with your weekly grocery list as well as some pitfalls to avoid at the store.
Foods to consider on your grocery list:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
- 1%, ½% or skim milk (unless you have children under the age of 2)
- Reduced fat cheese
- Whole wheat breads/whole grain pasta and rice
- Lean ground meats, such as 94% lean beef or lean turkey meat
- Chicken/turkey (skinless)
- Lean cuts of meat (round cuts of beef and pork are leaner)
- Dried beans/ lentils (i.e. black beans, red beans)
- Oatmeal/ cream of wheat
Tips to help you avoid making bad decisions in the grocery store:
- Never go grocery shopping when you are hungry. Every aisle will jump out at you, and chances are you’ll buy things that aren’t on your list.
- Shop mostly around the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where the staples of your diet are located. You tend to find less processed food in that area.
- Look for items a shelf above or below eye level. The most expensive, most popular and least healthy items are often positioned at eye level, especially on the cereal aisle.
- Be mindful of items available along the checkout line. They are often impulse purchases.
Save Time in the Kitchen
One of the primary reasons so many people buy processed, pre-made foods is the time involved in preparing a meal from scratch. Although time constraints are an issue for most families, try doing one of the suggestions below each day to help make cooking faster and more fun for the whole family:
- Remember your list? Stick to it! Wash and cut the fruits and vegetables that you’ll need for the week right when you get home from the grocery store. Have the kids help with washing vegetables while you chop.
- Organize your refrigerator by meal instead of by food type. If all of your pre-cut ingredients are together in the same place, it is easier to grab them all at one time.
- Act like a TV chef. Almost every cooking show starts with the ingredients (the ones you just found all in one place) lined up on the counter in prepared amounts. Prepare your ingredients this way and add each ingredient as your recipe calls for it instead of washing, cutting, chopping and then mixing things together.
- Make it fun for everyone. Involve your children in age-appropriate cooking activities. A child will be much more likely to eat his greens if he or she had a hand in making the salad.
- Limit the snacking. Make sure you and your kids come to the table hungry and ready to eat a well-balanced meal.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser
Kaiser Permanente of Georgia
National Restaurant Association