Americans are confronted with conflicting messages about nutrition and health on a daily basis. I believe this confusion is the basis for many of America's health problems (from heart disease and diabetes to obesity)
“Governments issue dietary advice to their citizens in order to promote consumption of agricultural and food products as well as to improve health.” While media and advertisements endorse unrealistic ideals of body image and promote outrageous dieting behavior. At the same time our doctors inform us that the only path to good health is through lifestyle changes which incorporate healthy eating habits with regular exercise.
So who do we listen to?
I’d like to believe that most Americans realize that what our doctors tell us is most accurate. However, even if we understand this, many people prefer to put looks and societal acceptance above personal health (through dieting to obtain unrealistic goals of beauty to eating "acceptable" foods, which may not be healthy); and those people who do value good health through the proper methods and look towards our government for help may find themselves scratching their heads.
First off, the guidelines given to us through the government are often vague and easily misunderstood. Take for example the food pyramid. The pyramid has recently been redesigned in an effort to relieve some of the confusion which resulted from the old design (see images below or click here).
However, I’d like to argue that the new pyramid design is less clear than the old. It is not as immediately obvious with the new pyramid which foods take priority. Also, the pyramid comes with a back side and suggests you visit a website (which not everyone has access to.) On the reverse side, text is used to clarify the image on the front. However, this text is also vague. For example it reads “Eat 2 cups (of fruit) every day. Choose fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit.” However, it does not clarify the health differences between eating 2 cups of fresh fruit versus canned or dried fruit which often have added sugars, salts, and preservatives. Another example, beans are listed twice, as both a vegetable and a protein. Does this mean one serving of beans counts for both a protein and a vegetable serving? Or do I still need to eat two servings of beans to meet each guideline?
Secondly, these guidelines are susceptible to influence from food companies. As stated by Jennifer Lisa Falbe and Marion Nestle in The Politics of Government Dietary Advice, “More often than not industry pressures have succeeded in inducing government agencies to eliminate, weaken or thoroughly obfuscate recommendations to eat less of certain nutrients and their food sources. In part, they do so by taking advantage of current trends in nutrition science towards defining human nutritional requirements as increasingly complex and individualized.” This last point is very important; the idea that human nutrition is complex and individualized is the basis for the $40 billion a year business of dieting.
The diet industry is possibly the main reason so many Americans are confused about nutrition. “In an on-demand culture of immediate gratification, the torturous grind of weight loss can be frustrating.” Americans look for and expect a quick fix to their weight and health issues. From this desire the diet industry has risen, making promises of quick, easy, affordable weight loss which will leave you feeling and looking great.
While diets are the most popular route to weight loss, they are the least effective. Though many work in the short term, few, if any, work in the long term. Any doctor will tell you that the way to weight loss and good health is an entire lifestyle change, not a short term diet. This alludes to the fact that diet and nutrition are indeed not individualized and complex as the diet industry would like us to believe. On the contrary, rules of nutrition and health are quite simple and can be applied to almost anyone (negating of course those with personal health problems.)
However, confusion in this area is more profitable; thus the diet industry continuously comes out with new claims of super foods and fast diet plans which work better than the ones from last week, forcing us to constantly buy new diet books, magazines, foods, and equipment.
As you can see, Americans are presented with conflicting information about nutrition and health. Government says A (though we’re not entirely sure what A is), the diet industry via media tells us B, while doctors tell us C. So what can we do?
I think we all know the real solution is to listen to our doctors and practice living healthy lifestyles. Unfortunately good health has become a luxury of the rich while the rest of us are stuck sorting through misleading information. Perhaps one day a miracle drug will be created which actually does make everyone thin, beautiful, and healthy; but today is not that day and health remains something to work for.