Changing or de-stressing the food environment: Which is more important for health?

Is all of the emphasis on healthy foods, unhealthy foods, and obesity really having a positive effect on the health of our population?  I read today about a school food programme in New South Wales which recently achieved a 90% increase in the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables purchased by children at school.  This is a fantastic achievement which undoubtedly will have a positive effect on health – an intended consequence. 

But what about the possible unintended consequences of children growing up in an environment where some foods are demonised and a slender body image is idealised in the name of “health”?  I wonder whether children are able to grasp the concepts of balance and individual lifestyles.  It is questionable at least, particularly when adults, me included, find it hard enough at times. 

My own daughters, aged 2 and 4, see life as very black and white.  They know which foods are treat foods, but I’m disinclined to explain to them the relationship between over-eating these types of foods and bodyweight, for fear of the unintended consequences.

Between 1995 and 2005 the prevalence of binge eating, purging, strict dieting and fasting to control weight doubled in South Australia. Particularly striking has been the increase in binge eating – something not measured in a similar New Zealand study.  The reason?  The authors of the Australian study conclude: “…we speculate that the rising tide of public concern over the (also very real) increase in weight disorder [obesity] in the general population in Australia, may have contributed to an increase in weight control behaviours, and to binge eating as a consequence of dietary restriction…”.

We all know that food is only one side of the equation.  Levels of physical activity and stress can also play a huge part in weight management.

You’d be surprised at what children can get stressed about.  My four-year-old recently told my sister, “I’m too stressed with all of the learning I have to do [at daycare], and I don’t get any time to play any more!”

Earlier this year the findings of a Dunedin study showed that overweight women who undertook an intensive stress-reduction programme for 10 weeks had improved mental and physical health for up to 12 months.  They also developed more of a preference for low-fat eating than an equivalent group, who received healthy eating and physical activity advice rather than the stress reduction programme.  Powerful stuff.

The importance of psychological impacts of any public health nutrition message or programme should never be overlooked.  I’m not saying this is a reason for inaction – because there are certainly some fantastic “intended consequences” happening out there – but more that it’s worthwhile also remembering what complex beings we really are.

Categories: Nutrition and Health