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Nature versus nurture: Is healthy eating truly a choice?
A comprehensive, although certainly not all-inclusive, exploration of why we eat the way that we eat and what we can do, as consumers, moving forward to promote a healthier future. - photo by Stephanie Roque, MS, RD, CD
Imagine that you are walking through the grocery store. Grocery shopping seems like a simple task; you pick out which foods look desirable based on qualities like taste, cost and attractive packaging. It is a commonly held belief that the obesity epidemic is due to internal characteristics such as the inability to control how much one eats. It can be argued that external factors also contribute, if not play an even larger role, in the proliferation of increasing body mass indices. Factors including personal psychology, community characteristics and national policies vastly contribute to our dietary patterns on a daily basis.

As the obesity epidemic continues to take its toll locally, nationally and internationally, legislators and community members alike are evaluating the driving forces behind our food choices to develop methods of combatting this threat to our health. This article is intended to provide a more comprehensive, although certainly not all-inclusive, exploration of why we eat the way that we eat and what we can do, as consumers, moving forward to promote a healthier future.

1. Personal psychology

It may sound like a simple notion, but the psychological forces that drive our food choices are incredibly powerful and complex. Have you ever woken up in the morning to the smell of freshly baked blueberry muffins and felt immediately taken back in time to waking up at Grandmas house as a child? There is much to be said for both the subconscious and conscious forces behind our food choices, many of which are developed as children and persist into adulthood.

As an example, using food as a reward in the classroom has been discouraged by many national organizations, and schools nationwide are developing wellness policies prohibiting this practice. An article published by the Journal of School Health in 2002 found that of 490 middle school teachers, 73 percent used candy and 37 percent used cookies and doughnuts as rewards in the classroom. Furthermore, research shows that associating good behavior with nutritionally inadequate foods may result in this association continuing to dictate food choices as an adult.

2. Community characteristics

Without a doubt, the characteristics of communities have a significant impact on food choices in terms of access and availability. Adding to the complexity of the matter is the idea that food may be available, but whether or not the community members have sufficient access to that food is an entirely different issue.

Food deserts, defined as areas that lack access to affordable and healthy food choices, are dispersed throughout our entire nation and affect both urban and rural areas. Typically prevalent in low-income communities, food deserts may consist of a small convenience store as the sole source of groceries within 30 miles. Visualize walking into your local convenience store, the shelves stocked with chips, granola bars and your favorite soda, and trying to purchase fresh, healthy ingredients to prepare dinner for your family.

Far too many people throughout our nation face this challenge on a daily basis and suffer from various forms of diet-related chronic diseases as a result.

3. National policy

One of the most commanding influences upon why we eat the way that we eat is agriculture-related policy created on the national level. The reality for many people in our society is choosing to pay rent, the electricity bill or other housing expenses over spending more money on food. Our food environment is comprised of countless inexpensive and nutritionally inadequate options, which is partially a product of such policies.

The farm bill, for example, provides subsidies for farmers to grow certain crops and pays farmers based on the quantity of crops produced. Corn is the reigning champion of subsidies illustrated by a staggering $84.5 billion from 1995-2012. Much of the corn is then transformed into nutritionally inadequate ingredients commonly found in inexpensive options including soda, cookies, pastries and countless other foods. These foods also happen to be strongly marketed on television and throughout nearly every aisle of the grocery store.

Based on sufficient evidence opposing the belief that healthy eating is solely driven by consumer choice, we need to move away from the mindset that one suffers from obesity due to ones own poor choices. A more compassionate and comprehensive approach will produce more effective solutions for the issues at hand. It is vital to the health of our nation that we, as consumers, reflect upon the complexity that is food choice prior to passing judgment on others and advocate for health interventions that reach beyond ones own choice. Such interventions must take into consideration the vast array of influences upon why we eat the way that we eat in order to produce the intended results of a happier, healthier nation.