Friday, November 28, 2014

Tell Us Something We Don't Know

A recent report from Health Day tells us about new research on healthy eating.  Results were presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and revealed that “home cooking is better than restaurant fare, and that kids who are offered more nutritious food in school cafeterias rarely eat it.”  This is not exactly earth-shattering news.  It seems more like stating the obvious and backing it up with a couple of studies, however, the conclusions should be “viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.”  That means they will not be sure until someone else has duplicated these studies and found similar results, but it makes perfect sense based on experience.

First, the idea that eating out rather than at home can be the healthier choice flies in the face of everything we have been hearing for the past decade.  The government has both pressured and required restaurants to post calorie counts and other information on the menu to give diners a chance to consider their options.  The Internet is filled with tricks and tips about how to eat healthy when away from home, strong evidence that it can be the less healthy option.  Here's a list of tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that was reviewed two years ago, which implies that it was out for longer.  It lists activities for preparation, choosing a restaurant, ordering and recommends eating more slowly to avoid overeating.  Restaurants present more choices, more food and the enticement of a dessert – you don’t even have to get up to get it.

The potential dangers of eating too many meals at restaurants have been discussed for many years.  The healthy eating advocates and others have been encouraging more meals at home, especially more meals as a family, for several reasons including this one.  Unless you are very careful, too much restaurant eating leads to excessive weight gain (and it’s more expensive, too).  It’s not like this is a surprise.

Next we hear another example of how the government can’t legislate behavior.  When the government dictates menus to schools, in effect telling kids what they must eat, the kids will avoid or ignore it.  In my personal experience I’ve talked to a couple who volunteered to help feed the “food insecure” children in a summer program.  The program had to follow certain nutritional guidelines, but after the meal the trashcans were full of unopened vegetable cups.  In another case, a mother complained about having to give her daughter enough lunch money to buy two lunches because the girl found a single serving was not sufficient.  These may be single observations, anecdotal evidence, but I’m not surprised to find that it appears to be a universal problem.

Again, lots of experience tells us that it’s a challenge to get kids to eat their vegetables.  Some scholars even argue that it’s the result of ancient genetic programing for survival in case the green stuff is poisonous.  Left unsupervised (or un-nagged) most kids will figure out a way to dispose of the dreaded vegetables.

Thanks to the American Public Health Association we now have research to confirm (pending peer review) what we already knew and observed for many years.  Healthy eating is about behavior for both children and adults.  Researchers can publish studies telling us what we already know and government agencies can institute regulations, but any real and lasting behavior change must come from individuals who are motivated to change.   Until that happens, we will continue to get the same results in terms of overweight and unhealthy citizens.

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