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New strategies to encourage healthy eating

As we all know, there’s a ton of research and work going on across the country to reduce the number of overweight and obese Americans.  New ides for conveying health messages to consumers are being thrown around – but who knows if they’ll improve the food environment or confuse people even more.  Here are a few examples of what might happen:

Color Coded Foods.  Recently, a study at Mass General Hospital in Boston found that simple, color coded labels helped improve food choices in the hospital cafeteria.  They also found that positioning items strategically in display cases also impacted choice.  Though the impact of positioning in cafeterias has clearly been shown to improve food choices by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, I don’t know if this color-coded system will work on a larger scale.

  • Pros: It worked in a hospital setting, with limited options.
  • Cons: Many foods are healthy in some ways but not in others.  In retail outlets with many options, like supermarkets, categorizing foods may not be so easy or may require several codes (see the image above).  In the case of several codes, it might get more complicated to figure out which food is the better choice.

Including ‘Added Sugar’ on Nutrition Fact Labels.  The FDA is considering adding a line on Nutrition Fact Labels for added sugar.  Under current labeling guidelines, it is very difficult to tell what sugar is added and what sugar is natural.  In fact, it’s so complicated, that I steer people away from the label and toward the ingredient list – if sugar is one of the major ingredients, put the item away!

  • Pros: Would give consumers more information about exact nutritional content
  • Cons: Many people feel that the labels are already difficult enough to read and understand – particularly for low income/low literate audiences that need the most nutritional guidance.

Discouraging unhealthy options (i.e. limit choices for food stamp recipients, place a tax on sodas, or ban enormous drink sizes altogether).  Many people believe that we should encourage healthy eating by discouraging or limiting unhealthy options.

  • Pros: Making unhealthy choices more expensive or more difficult to acquire will deter some people from purchasing those items
  • Cons: This strategy is ‘healthy by default’  – it does not empower nor educate individuals to make better decisions.

I think the answer is going to be a combination of strategies – mostly with a focus on preventative awareness.  Education (about healthy food, managing a food budget, etc.) accompanied by policies that promote healthy choices (i.e. breastfeeding in public places, improving the nutritional quality of the food supply, increasing access to healthy food) is going to require collaboration and coordination, but it’s the only way to begin to reverse the trend.  What ideas do you have?

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