By Leia Kedem/University of Illinois Extension
As Americans, we pride ourselves on having freedom of choice. We can choose whom we vote for, what to wear, where to travel and so on. Importantly, we can also choose what to eat.
Or can we?
According to a new study from University of Illinois researcher Brenna Ellison, most of us do think the choice is ultimately ours. In a survey of nearly 800 Americans, a whopping 94 percent of respondents believed that individuals are primarily responsible for the rise in obesity. Not the government, grocery stores, farmers, food companies or restaurants.
The problem is, many of the factors that ultimately influence food choices are out of our control. Cost is a huge barrier to healthier eating, and it's largely driven by the economics of supply and demand. It's not uncommon for bad weather or drought to wipe out crops, reducing supply and driving up prices.
Government policy can also play a role. Certain agricultural commodities like wheat, beef, corn and others are heavily subsidized while fruits and vegetables are not. This can make products made with commodity crops much cheaper; unfortunately, these are often processed into products that are high in fat and calories.
When a cheeseburger and fries costs $2 and a grilled chicken salad goes for $7, it's no wonder that those with lower incomes are more likely to choose the burger combo.
Beside cost, taste is one of the biggest factors behind food choices. If it doesn't taste good, we're not likely to eat it. Some taste preferences are individual, but other foods are almost universally delicious.
It is well-known that foods containing a trifecta of sugar, salt and fat are nearly irresistible and can have an addictive quality. The slogans "once you pop, you can't stop" and "bet you can't eat just one" are actually quite true for most people. It sure is nice to think that we can just say no, but it's easier said than done.
Despite the fact that these factors are out of our control, I do believe we are responsible for our collective weight issues. How? By placing the burden of responsibility for food choices on our own shoulders, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
We blame ourselves for dietary indiscretions and falling off the exercise wagon. We feel angry and depressed and start another diet, only to perpetuate the obesity cycle. In my opinion, we need an attitude adjustment.
I'm not saying no one is capable of making healthy choices, but I think most would agree that our environment is not conducive to living a healthy lifestyle.
So how can we take back the reins?
It might not be possible to control the larger environment, but you can make changes to your surroundings to encourage healthier eating:
— At home, fill your fridge with fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy and lean protein.
— Stock the pantry with healthier whole grains and fewer "snacky" foods.
— Wash and cut up produce at the beginning of the week and put them front and center in the refrigerator. Out of sight means out of mind — and into the trash can.
— If you know that you can't fight the siren sound of ice cream, don't keep it in the house.
— At work, keep a supply of healthy options in your desk (granola bars, portioned bags of nuts, whole grain crackers) for when you feel like visiting the vending machine.
— Brown-bag it a few more times per week.
— If you can't resist the fast food drive-thru on your way home from work, try taking a different route.
The fact is, freedom of choice is alive and well when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, just not in the way we've come to believe. More sweeping societal changes may eventually come down the pike, but in the meantime, exercise your right by advocating for your own environment.
After all, if you don't, who will?
Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at email@example.com.