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Despite obesity crisis eating habits unchanged for most | Timi Gustafson

Most Americans are concerned with their weight and are changing their food choices. Although losing weight remains a key priority for most adults, a surprising number of consumers are now less concerned about the amount of food they eat than they were a few years ago.

If these statements sound contradictory to you, it is because they are. Both food manufacturers and health care industry try hard to make sense of America’s eating habits. Not a week goes by without another survey reporting the discovery of new trends in consumers’ behavior. The picture is anything but clear.

 

It is true that many more Americans have become interested in healthy eating. Concerns about food safety have definitely increased, and for good reasons. In response to several outbreaks of food-related illnesses in recent years, there is now greater demand for organic food products, even if it means paying higher prices. But for most of the population, nutritional quality is still not a priority when it comes to food choices.

 

Most Americans don’t eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which recommends five servings of each in its dietary guidelines. Milk and eggs are being consumed in lesser amounts, but cheese is more popular than ever. Meat, poultry and fish consumption continues to rise. The overall fat content in the average American diet is undiminished.

 

Americans love their snacks. According to USDA studies, almost 20 percent of daily calorie supply comes from snack food in this country. Half of younger adults skip breakfast on most days, a quarter goes without lunch, and home-cooked dinners are becoming the exception rather than the rule even among families with young children. Especially kids suffer in growing numbers from malnutrition and weight problems due to unhealthy eating patterns.

 

Working men and women eat on average 25 percent of their meals away from home. That doesn’t mean the other 75 percent are being made from scratch. Fast food, pizza, take-outs and frozen dinners are the preferred choices of those with busy lifestyles. Pre-packaged meals, so-called “convenience foods,” became available in the 1950s when women started to enter the work force in large numbers and being a full-time “homemaker” was no longer attractive or financially feasible. The invention of the microwave, the omnipresence of fast food chains and a growing appetite for cheap food to go all fed into these trends and continue to do so.

 

While many aspects of these lifestyle changes are positive, the downsides are quite devastating. We are in the midst of a national obesity epidemic that has reached crisis level. Childhood obesity has become by far the greatest health threat to the country’s future.

 

And yet, there is growing evidence that Americans are getting fed up with dieting and weight loss. Finding themselves ceaselessly barraged with often contradictory information and expert advice, people become less enlightened and instead more confused and helpless. Others feel increasingly resentful about being lectured on what they see as their private business. As important as good health may be to them, many Americans find it too arduous and time-consuming to follow suit in their diet.

 

The number of people who say they watch their food intake at least occasionally for weight management and fitness purposes is stagnant, according to reports by three leading weight loss companies. “People are just saying: The hell with it. I’m going to eat whatever I feel like,” said one spokesperson for Marketdata Enterprises, a research firm specializing in data gathering for the weight loss market.

 

According to a survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association (A.D.A.), over 80 percent of Americans now rate nutrition as “only moderately important” to them. Most experts agree that people are clearly moving away from being obsessed with being thin. Some have suggested that the aging Baby Boomers are at least one of the reasons. When folks get older, they are more set in their ways, which is also reflected in their eating habits.

 

“I think there is some cultural backlash to our societal urge to live forever,” said John Lyons, a psychologist at Northwestern University. “It’s like a realization of one’s limits and an acceptance, something you see in the 40s to 50s age group. Maybe you just accept your lot and do the best you can.”

 

Not surprisingly, support groups for overweight people are emerging all over the country. Demand for better protection of the rights of the obese is getting louder and keeps gathering followers. Obesity has been stigmatized for far too long in our society, they say, and it’s time to question what counts as the ideal body image. Of course, this is a valid point. Many people with serious weight problems suffer from low self-esteem and other emotional distresses, which often complicate their efforts to lose weight in the first place.

 

Still, it is plain to see that the continuing obesity crisis is not a sustainable situation. Throwing our hands up and walking away in resignation is not an option. Too much is at stake here. There is no way that we will ever be able to provide affordable health care for everyone if the health of vast parts of the population continues to deteriorate at this pace. We won’t be able to dig ourselves out of this crisis, no matter what health care model we try to follow.

 

The necessary lifestyle changes will not happen without awareness and recognition of the consequences we will face if we continue on the current path. Unfortunately, the immediate forecast is not hopeful.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” available on her blog   http://www.timigustafson.com.

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