Nutrition Education and A Supportive Community Can Help Americans Living in "Food Deserts" or "Food Swamps" Fight Off Obesity

May 22, 2018

Nutrition Education and A Supportive Community Can Help Americans Living in "Food Deserts" or "Food Swamps" Fight Off Obesity

Good nutrition and a healthy, active lifestyle should be top-of-mind year-round.

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By John Agwunobi, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., former Assistant Secretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and current Chief Health and Nutrition Officer at Herbalife Nutrition 

Throughout the year, you will find commemorations of various health issues, from heart health, to diabetes, to general nutrition. While all have important messages that are designed to remind consumers of the importance and impact of good health, we should be asking why we are leaving these important messages to just one month. Good nutrition and a healthy, active lifestyle should be top-of-mind year-round.

However, good nutrition is not always easy to access, especially if you live in one of the many low-income communities across the U.S.  In fact, a recent study by Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that in addition to “food deserts,” or a lack of healthy food options including fresh fruits and vegetables, low-income neighborhoods are plagued by a “food swamp,” or an overabundance of unhealthy choices, like fast-foodrestaurants and convenience stores.

It is important to note that food deserts and food swamps are just one element of food security, an issue that this isn’t solely for lower-income or developing nations; it is happening and affecting the United States and developed countries too, and in similar ways. For this reason, the United Nations’ creation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG #2) for ending hunger and achieving food security is universal for all nations, adaptable to different contexts, and has been adopted by more than 200 nations.

Food security is more than simply having access to food. The definition has evolved over the last few decades, and the most current definition of food security includes “access to nutritious food.”

The food security problem is made worse and more intense by the lack of options in the poorest areas and for people without means to shop for food or cook on their own (elderly). Unfortunately, moving to a different region or community is not an option for most people, and waiting for resources to come to the community are not always a practical solution. 

There is no doubt that processed foods can and do contribute to nutrition. Both fresh and processed foods make up the fabric of the food system.  When looking at delivering nutrient dense foods to the most remote fooddeserts in the world, there is no way currently, for fresh food to compete on delivering safe and nutrient densefood in a cost-effective way, compared to processed food. 

So what is the answer? Should we talk about ending hunger for nutrition and not just ending hunger for calories? How often do we talk about hunger and obesity in the same breath?

Health education and finding a community of like-minded individuals can help change people’s outlook on their health decisions and behavior, helping one to shift to healthier food and beverage choices and increase physical activity. 

Let me be clear, education and a supportive community does not solve the problem of food security or the fundamental lack of investment in underserved communities to bring nutritious food to those communities.  However, they do help people make healthier choices when choosing between the “processed” foods available to them. 

An example of education is learning to understand the FDA’s Nutrition Facts labelavailable on all packagedfood sold in the United States. Understanding the nutritional information available on food labels and restaurant menus can empower you to make smarter eating decisions, choosing from a variety of foods and beverages that are higher in nutrient density throughout the day.   

What is nutrient density?  The concept of nutrient density, which is a measure of how much nutrition you get per calorie eaten, is important to a healthy diet.  Remember, when choosing between two food items with the same calorie amount, one food choice can provide your body with the protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals we need every day, while another choice may provide empty calories from sugar and fat with no significant nutrients. If you are looking for a quick snack, reach for a fruit or vegetable, or a high-quality protein, like a protein bar or protein shake to help you feel fuller (make sure nutrients in the bar or shake are balanced and not just dessert in healthy protein packaging). Even in food deserts and swamps, healthy eating can be achieved by making informed decisions that can only come through education. This behavior change helps our communitiesfight obesity.

We also need to remember that health is holistic in nature, and balanced nutrition is only part of the equation for a healthy and happy life.  A consistent exercise regimen is essential to a successful plan to get healthy.  By surrounding yourself with a supportive community of like-minded people, in other words, others who want to live a healthy active lifestyle, one can significantly increase the odds of reaching their goals.  In fact, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who regularly walk in groups have lower blood pressure, resting heart rate and total cholesterol. The exercise also leads to a reduction in body fat and Body Mass Index (BMI). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees. Regular physical activity, it points out, can reduce the burden of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, and can prevent early death.  At Herbalife Nutrition, we consistently receive positive feedback from members who regularly visit nutrition clubs to take advantage of the benefits from social interaction. 

We often say that it’s never too early or too late to make positive changes in your diet or fitness to help you live a healthy and happy life. I encourage everyone to utilize the many free resources for nutrition and fitnesseducation, including recipes and fitness videos available at or at a local nutritionclub.  Make a plan today to start changing unhealthy habits.

About Dr. Agwunobi
Dr. John Agwunobi is the Chief Health & Nutrition Officer for Herbalife
 Nutrition and brings an accomplished background and a wealth of experience as a physician, a public health official and a global executive. He served as the Assistant Secretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He oversaw the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, and numerous other public health offices and programs.  In the private sector, Dr. Agwunobi served as Senior Vice President and President of Health and Wellness for Walmart in the United States. At Herbalife Nutrition, he is responsible for the Company’s nutrition philosophy and ensuring nutritionscience is integrated into nutrition training and product education for Herbalife Nutrition Independent Distributors. He works closely with Herbalife Nutrition scientists and Ph.D.s to provide leadership and support to the HerbalifeNutrition Institute and the Company’s expert advisory boards.

Dr. Agwunobi has a broad educational background that includes a master's in public health from Johns Hopkins University and a master's in business administration from Georgetown University. Dr. Agwunobi completed his pediatric residency at Howard University.