Most of us have a good idea of what a healthy diet is. We may be short on a few particulars, but in general, we know eating fruits and vegetables are good for us, complemented by dairy, fish and meats. Diets that emphasize a variety of foods as close to their natural state as possible can reduce your risk for a whole host of diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancers. In addition, healthy nutrition is needed to maintain a strong immune system.
But sticking to a healthy diet is hard. Many people fall short of eating nutritious foods. In the US, only 12% of adults eat enough fruit and vegetables, while 30% of Canadians do. It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy foods. We all do. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed reported trying to eat healthy most of the time.
It’s Not Easy Eating Healthy
So if we know what to eat, and want to eat it, why can’t we? The bottom line, eating healthy isn’t easy. Most people find it easier to do their taxes than eat healthy.
Eating is a complex behaviour; you need to eat to live, time to buy food, a place to store it and prepare it. And for a lot of people, food is more than just something that provides sustenance, it’s a part of culture. As a result, the main reasons people eat what they do are taste, cost and convenience.
All of these actions are habits, formed over years or decades of your life. Some of these habits may be good, others you may be looking to change. And change is hard. It requires planning, setting goals that are realistic and establishing habits you can keep for the rest of your life (for guidance on change and goal setting, click on the links).
But while you do have control over the foods you buy, how you cook them and what you eat, there is a bigger picture here. Your access to food depends on a lot of circumstances beyond your control. From what your store sells to how your food is made, these decisions by others influence what you eat.
Where You Live Matters to Your Diet
When it comes to deciding what food to eat, we can only make choices based on the options in front of us. Let’s say you’re buying a car, if it only comes in blue or red, chances are you’ll end up owning either a blue or red car. In doing so, you’ve made an individual choice but only within the options of the colours the factory has decided to make. The choice of colours available was out of your control.
The same thing happens when it comes to food. If you don’t have access to healthy foods, you’re unlikely to buy and eat them. Essentially, what we eat is quite similar to what our neighbourhood food environment looks like. For example, consumption of fast food is greater in areas with more fast food restaurants.
And as our work has shown, the more fast food restaurants in a neighbourhood, the greater chance of being obese. Similarly, living in an area where there’s limited access to healthy foods, a so-called food desert, is associated with a higher risk for heart disease.
How Supermarkets Affect What You Eat
Once inside a supermarket, there are plenty of strategies used to get you to buy certain products. In the world of marketing, it has long been known that where items are placed on a shelf influences what gets sold. The more shelf space an item has, the more it sells. In addition, items at eye level and at the end of aisles sell faster. And those sugary snacks at the check-out counter are there to entice you to buy them too. When they were removed from grocery stores in Britain, sales went down by 17%.
Of course price is also important when buying food. Shoppers at supermarkets with lower prices had a higher risk for obesity compared to supermarkets with higher prices. This may be due to purchasing cheaper, less nutritious and more calorie dense foods. Indeed, if you struggle financially, you may find it harder to purchase healthy foods, which are often more expensive.
Processed Foods Make You Eat More
Over the years more and more space in supermarkets has been devoted to processed foods. This includes pre-packaged meals, soda pop, and sweet and savoury snacks. These are commonly referred to as ultra-processed foods.
Foods are processed to extend shelf-life, make production easier and cheaper, and make it more convenient to transport and prepare. With their high salt and sugar content, these foods are made to be addictive. When people were given free access to processed foods they ate more and gained more weight compared to when they were given unprocessed foods. What can be discouraging is that ultra-processed foods account for nearly 60% of a person’s daily calories.
These foods are a concern as they have been linked to increased chances of getting cancer and heart disease, as well as early death. Eating four servings of processed food a day was associated with a 62% greater chance of death in young adults compared to eating less than two per day. The chances of death within 10 years went up by 18% for each serving of processed food.
Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Sugar is a common ingredient in many processed foods and its use has accelerated ever since the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released targeting fat. Almost immediately, there was a proliferation of low-fat, yet high sugar items created by the food industry. This had a profound change on our diets, and our health, as fat intake decreased and sugar intake increased.
It has since been revealed how the sugar industry funded research studies to cast doubt on the dangers of sugar while promoting fat as the problem. We now know added sugars increase your chances for diabetes, heart disease and early death, while not all fats are bad.
A further challenge to your diet is the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener. Unlike glucose, fructose is metabolized by the liver, independent of insulin and increases fat around the waist. HFCS may be found in soda pops, desserts, sweetened canned fruit, cereals, baked goods and condiments.
Quick Tips to Help You Eat Healthy
With marketing tactics, sugar added to foods and the production of addictive processed food of no nutrition value, it’s no wonder eating healthy is a challenge. But here are some tried and true tips that can get you on your way:
- Avoid processed and high sugar foods. Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. These are usually found along the perimeter of the grocery store. The middle aisles are mainly stocked with processed foods.
- Read the ingredient listing. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, beginning with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least. The longer the ingredient listing, the more likely the food is processed.
- Thirsty? Reach for water. If you need something with a bit more taste, add a slice of cucumber, some mint, and/or even a splash of lemon or lime. Also try carbonated water, tea or coffee.
- If you don’t want to eat it, don’t bring it in the house. You have control over what you bring home from the grocery store, but once it’s in your home, it’s likely to be eaten.
- If you do want treat foods, aim for smaller packages. The bigger the portion, the more you’ll eat.
- Feel free to use frozen or canned vegetables and fruit. These are a cheaper and fast way to get healthy foods. And with many brands packed at the source, they’re often fresher than vegetables that have sat in the warehouse. Look for fruit canned in juice rather than syrup with added sugars
- Tell people you’re trying to eat healthy. Their support can go a long way into to helping you out.
- Pack your lunch. Eating food from home is generally healthier than food at restaurants. In many cases, foods at restaurants are prepackaged and therefore come with a load of preservatives.
- If you do eat at restaurants, be mindful of portions. Put some in a take-out container before eating and skip the breadbasket.
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This post was originally published on June 27, 2018 and updated on June 24, 2020.