August 19, 2010

Unhealthy People 2010

Astoundingly, since the Healthy People 2010 initiative launched in 2001, still not a single U .S. state has been able to reach the goal of a 15% or lower obesity rate.  The closest is Colorado, with 18.6% of its population reporting a BMI or 30 or higher, while the state with the most work to do is Mississippi, with a 34.4% rate.  Yes, that means that more than one-third of the population of the state of Mississippi is not just overweight, but obese - the equivalent of 185 pounds or more on a 5'5" frame.

This past weekend, I spent four days in Atlanta, Georgia for an academic conference.  Ironically, I was presenting a paper on obesity and health in a state where 28.1% of the adult population is obese (the 17th highest rate among U.S. states).

One might stop and wonder - how could different states in the same nation have such wildly varied obesity rates?  While there are many answers to this question, each complex and riddled with socioeconomic, educational, and class differences, let me offer one possibility from my personal experience this weekend: food environments. 

Part of the bene-fit lifestyle includes eating a healthy diet with foods that fuel your body and treat it with kindness - we strive to limit processed foods, eat meals with lots of vegetables and lean protein, and stay conscious of portion sizes.  However, depending on the environments in which you buy, prepare, and eat your food, this may be easier said than done.

Consider an example from Friday night in Atlanta.  We were taken by our colleagues to an "authentic Southern food" restaurant for dinner.  One glance at the menu and I shuddered - there were zero healthy options (the closest being collard greens which, upon investigation, were cooked in a mixture of pork fat and salt) and nearly everything else was fried.  I was in a food environment without healthy options, in a community of people who did not mind the menu, and with no way to substitute my own food or select another restaurant.

So what did I do, you ask?  Regrettably, I ordered fried chicken and painstakingly removed the skin (not an easy thing to do once you get a whiff of that buttermilk coating!) and ate the fatty collard greens as described above.  I went to bed feeling bloated, dehydrated, and sweaty - and couldn't imagine how my dining companions felt after their combinations of fried plantains, bourbon and marshmallow-drenched sweet potatoes, and pork aplenty.  This was crazy, I thought - but now I understand why certain states have certain rates. 

At bene-fit, we understand that different regional, cultural, and familial norms make it harder or easier to adopt a healthy dietary lifestyle.  It's a lot easier to transition from nutrient-free iceberg lettuce salads (as was the case in my family) to nutrient-rich spinach salads than it is to switch from deep-fried chicken (as I saw in the South) to a boneless, skinless chicken breast.  We grow up with taste patterns and preferences that, once we know they don't always align with our health goals, are very difficult to change.  That said, it is up to you to take a stand for yourself, your family, and your health - no matter where you live.

This week, bene-fit challenges you to think about one unhealthy food environment you frequent - whether it's the break room at work when the dozen doughnuts are brought in, or the freezer at midnight where you stash that extra quart of ice cream.  How can you change your choices - or in some cases, alter the environment - so that you aren't stuck in an unhealthy situation?  What small "tweaks" can you make to an established outine to avoid tough food choices or feeling helpless around a sea of poor nutritional options?

Be mindful of what you put in your mouth and you can be one more "healthy person" in 2010 - no matter what the statistics say.  Be strong and stay healthy this week!

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