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Why ARE We So Unhealthy?

I was at a job interview the other day (go me!),  and while I was waiting to meet with the manager, I noticed some of the employees entering the building. They had clearly all been out to lunch, each bringing their own plastic bag from some nearby fast food restaurant. Now mind you, this was an engineering firm. These were smart, capable, hard-working people with professional degrees. So WHY were they making such poor food choices? Why were they wasting their hard-earned money on crappy burgers and fries? Was it because they don’t know? Or don’t care?

On my drive home, I couldn’t help but mull over the behavior I saw. And I realized that the problem I noticed wasn’t only occurring at the office I visited. No, this was a problem plaguing America. Many of us have heard the stats about how two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, or how this is the first generation that won’t outlive its predecessors. To hear those stats on the news or read them in an article is one thing. But to see the behavior that leads to those stats is another.

After considerable debate, I’ve narrowed it down to three main reasons why America has been on an anti-health kick since God knows when as long as I can remember. Of course, there could be more reasons as to why Americans eat the way they too, and if you have other ideas I’m all ears. But I think many of the problems with food can be narrowed down to these three fundamental flaws:

We have few sources of education

A lot of times, I forget that not everyone is a foodie like me. Between work, family, illness, children, stress, finances, and a host of other problems, Americans are as busy as ever. And frankly, food might not be on our list of top priorities. Few people take the time to educate themselves on the importance of food and nutrition. On top of that, few people have access to the kind of information they need. If you don’t have health insurance, you most likely don’t have access to  a doctor who could help you make better dietary choices. And even if you do see a doctor on a regular basis, his/her’s training in nutrition is dismal at best. While there is still controversy out there, I ultimately believe that doctors are trained to treat illness, not promote health. Rarely do they understand how food interacts with the physiological processes in the body.

So what’s the answer? Ultimately, Americans need to take this education upon themselves. It is each individual’s responsibility to take initiative and gain access to this kind of education. However, this isn’t to say that food companies, the government, or a combination of the two shouldn’t be held accountable as well. Because even if you wanted to learn more about the right foods to eat, what if you don’t always have access to a library or a computer? What if you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? What if you constantly see ads for cheap processed food and forget about all the healthy foods out there? This is where sound governmental food policies come in. This is where Congress needs to enact legislation to ignite new attitudes towards food–not cut their food stamps in attempt to save money. This is where grassroots movements about going organic or  local need to unite to reach Americans all over the country. Essentially, education is a great tool  we can use to curb our current obesity epidemic. Getting Americans excited about healthy food again and finding a way to give them the information they need is key.

 We have little access to resources

Sometimes, I’ll need to go to several stores to get all the foods and ingredients I use on a regular basis. Between a conventional grocery story, Costco, an organic market, an an international food store, it takes a lot of time and money to get all the foods I need. Obviously, not everyone has access to these resources. Say you live in New York City with no car and limited financial means. A convenient store down the street might be your only source of food and nutrition. And between all the shelves of chips, ice cream, and soda, it can be hard to sift through the aisles to find good, wholesome food. Moreover, as we’ve become a more urban society, we’ve forgotten where a lot of our whole foods come from. We have started to think that processed and junk foods are natural, when in reality our bodies weren’t designed to digest any of these products.

It would be an understatement to say that it’s a continuing challenge to provide access to the types of foods we need to eat for optimal health. One reason we are so unhealthy is simply because many Americans don’t have access to the types of foods they should eat. Instead of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats, we have processed foods loaded with artificial ingredients, excessive sugar, and all sorts of chemicals that we simply weren’t designed to consume. Give Americans better quality foods at an affordable price, and chances are they’ll buy them!

We have a distorted value system

 How many times a day do you see an advertisement for a car? A candy bar? A carrot? Today, Americans are consumed by materialism. We value iPads over an apples (pun intended). We value money over time. And while that may not be new news, it has certainly lead to a distorted value system that places emphasis on material items instead of non-material items like health and happiness.

I once heard somewhere that a decent chunk of your money should be spent towards buying the best food you can possibly afford. I say forget the fancy house with the home theater and towel warmers in the bathroom. Forget the designer handbag or hundred dollar night cream that claims youth and radiance over night. If you can afford all of those things AND high-quality food, that’s great. But if your skimping on quality for a car you can’t afford or a vacation that’s out of your budget, I personally think that you need to reevaluate your value system. Is what you’re spending money on really worth it? Or would it be better spent somewhere else?

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Note that these problems I’ve listed aren’t applicable to only the United States–these are global problems at large that are only getting worse. All over the world, there are regions that don’t know the right kind of foods to eat, don’t have access to the right kinds of food, and frankly don’t care.

I also realize that many people might find these statements borderline insulting. After all, who I am to tell you what you’re doing wrong? It’s not like I see your kitchen or go grocery shopping with you! So please, don’t beat yourself up about it! It’s not your fault if you’ve been making unhealthy food choices for a while. Between the lack of awareness about food, the lack of healthy food available, and the eschewed value system we’ve developed over the years, there are millions of people every day who are in the same boat. Use this reading today as a source of empowerment, as a reason to stop making excuses for yourself and start making changes!

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