Why Is Making The Healthy Choice So Hard?

July 23, 2015

We know there are a lot of reasons for our growing waistlines, and these reasons are complex and multi-faceted.

by Allison Bloom, Editor of The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

Recently, I met a friend at a coffee shop in between meals. The neighborhood café was gorgeous and had a plethora of delicious, gourmet and locally sourced baked goods on display. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Raspberry scones. Almond-crusted blueberry cake. You get the picture. Knowing that lunch was in a few hours, I knew that I shouldn’t get the banana nut muffin calling my name, but I admit, I was getting a little bit hungry. The latte I just ordered wasn’t going to cut it.

I asked the cashier if they had any fruit for sale, and she looked around, unsure. A banana? An apple? Anything that had any nutritional value and could fill my stomach until lunch. Nope. No luck. Then she remembered something. They had prepared apples for their apple crisps, albeit coated in sugar, so they must have whole, uncut apples in the back kitchen – right? The cashier disappeared around the corner, and I waited as the line behind me grew and grew and caffeine-deprived hipsters anxious to place their own orders started biting their nails in annoyance. I smiled and waived apologetically. Yeah, I’m that girl today.

When the cashier returned with the apple, she looked pretty unhappy. She leaned closer to me and whispered, “I can sell you this apple. But my manager says it’s organic and that means I have to charge you three dollars for it. Which is totally ridiculous. I would just give it to you, but then I’ll get in trouble. What do want to do?” I laughed and asked, “How much is the cookie?” (Said cookie, mind you, was the size of my face and about 500 calories. I know because it says so on the package.) She laughed and replied, “It’s one dollar.”

Why is making the healthy choice so hard? The obesity epidemic is now part of our nation’s fabric, our very essence. Being overweight or obese in this country has become as American as, well, apple pie. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that more than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese. Approximately 17% (or 12.7 million) of children and adolescents aged two to 19 years old are obese too. Obesity can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer, and cost the U.S. $147 billion dollars in 2008. 

We know there are a lot of reasons for our growing waistlines, and these reasons are complex and multi-faceted. There are socioeconomic contributors, like food deserts (living in a neighborhood that does not have a grocery that provides fresh produce), and the fact that an apple costs three dollars while a cookie costs one. The prevalence of obesity in preschoolers is greater among those from low-income families. Education factors in here as well. Obesity prevalence among children whose adult head of household completed college is approximately half that of those whose adult head of household did not complete high school. 

There are even cultural contributors and family traditions of cooking in ways that may not be as healthy as they should, or could be. Of course, there are also physical contributors. We have become less active, and our kids play video games instead of playing basketball. Over the years, health professionals and public health scientists have taught us much about these depressing statistics. 

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Programs like Let’s Move and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation are making great strides in resetting some terribly disturbing trends. And there are tremendous success stories. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation brokered voluntary agreements with leading beverage manufactures to replace full-calorie soft drinks in school with more nutritious, smaller-portioned beverages. This has actually reduced the number of total beverage calories shipped to schools by 90 percent. 

Meanwhile, efforts to combat food deserts have spanned the gamut, from food trucks, to mobile groceries to pop-up produce stands. Twin Cities Mobile Market, for one, is a grocery store on wheels that brings affordable, healthy food directly into under-resourced neighborhoods in Minnesota. Their recent Indiegogo campaign was a hit, helping them raise enough money to add a second bus and bring their mobile market to more neighborhoods – proving that there is both a need and a solution to this crisis.

And yet, even with all this progress, I found myself in a situation (in a fairly suburban food oasis) where making the unhealthy choice was not only cheaper, but much, much easier. It occurred to me that we are missing one important message when it comes to retraining our youth – and ourselves – to eat healthier and become more active. Making the healthy choice is hard, and while we can try to make the right choices more obvious by popping a banana in our bags before we leave for work, or fitting a 30-minute work out into our morning, we can’t expect the decision process to be easy. It takes work to stay healthy. It takes work to make the healthy choice. We have to commit to it. We have to teach our children to do the same.

So what happened to my apple, you ask? Ultimately, the cashier punched some numbers into computer and handed it over. “I charged you for the cookie,” she said, and winked, perhaps unknowingly starting a fiber-filled revolution. I gave her a dollar and took a bite. The guy behind me asked the cashier if she had any more apples. I think we both made the right choice.