When I was a child in the mid-1990s, I found a book in our makeshift home library about the future. Written sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s the book outlined a number of predictions about what the world would be like in the 2000s. The offwhite pages and purple line-illustrations were pretty rad, and the ideas listed blew my little seven-year-old mind. Hard to believe that between 1990-something and 2019, we still haven’t perfected the craft of transporting our likeness through time and space using pocket-hologram machines. I suppose Facetime is a nice consolation prize, though.
Now, I cannot for the life of me find that book in my parent’s basement, but I do remember a few of the predictions that really rocked my world:
A pair of glasses that could project television right onto the lens. What a treat!
Cars capable of driving themselves.
A cure for cancer.
Entire meals that came in the form of a pill (or a few pills)
Check! Check! Not yet. Nope. But, considering there were thousands of additional predictions in the book, it’s not unlikely the futurists of the time got a lot of other things right. However, one thing I don’t remember reading about, a topic that certainly would have been hard for most people to imagine four or five decades ago, is the state of public health heading into 2020.
Obviously, I have no first-hand knowledge, but I struggle to imagine a world in which people thought ahead to the year 2020 and assumed - collectively - we’d be less healthy than ever before. If anything, it would seem counterintuitive for people in the 1970’s to imagine a post-2000 future in which nearly half of American adults live with one or more preventable, chronic, lifestyle-related disease(s). Or a world in which our children are predicted to have a shorter lifespan than us because of skyrocketing rates of diet-related disease(s). I doubt futurists of the time could have predicted unhealthy diets would be cited as the leading cause of disease and disability, and contribute to the death of upwards of 700,000 Americans annually.
Yet, here we are.
As a country, we’re heading into the 2020s less healthy than any time in recent history.
Despite an endless amount of nutrition information *LITERALLY* in the palm of our hands and in the face of relentless diet-culture promoted in media of all sorts, our families are experiencing unprecedented rates of heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. A fact that would undoubtedly shock our friends, the 1970s futurists.
So how did we get here? As a society, did we somehow become lazier or less concerned with our health? Have we stopped caring about our children? Do we just enjoy paying increased health-care costs or experiencing an unnecessarily diminished quality of life as we age?
Of course not.
In fact, given the pace of our lives, personal and professional expectations, economic considerations, and increased social pressure, it’s probably fair to say we care more about our health, money, and quality of life than ever before. If that’s not true, then Instagram’s business model is in trouble.
So if we - the people in this equation - haven’t changed the things we want for ourselves and our families, and we have the information we need at our fingertips, why aren’t we getting healthier instead of the other way around?
Well, one critical thing our future-thinking friends of the 1970s couldn’t predict was the dramatic transformation of our food system and community food environments. They couldn’t predict the way our food environments would come to influence our food choice or the ways the food industry would leverage those food environments to maximize profit with little regard for human health.
But that is exactly what has happened.
For too long, the conversation about nutrition and health has focused almost exclusively on personal choice and willpower, lackluster or indulgent parenting, and cooking skills (or lack thereof). Meanwhile, the food environments in our schools, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, offices, corner markets, etc… have grown increasingly less healthy. A fact that for many, completely nullifies the personal choice argument. After all, the child who depends on school lunch has little authority when it comes to the foods they’re served.
In her article “This is why child obesity rates have soared,” Sara FL Kirk, Professor of Health Promotion at Dalhousie University notes,
"There is a pervasive narrative of personal responsibility for obesity, particularly among the general population. This suggests that people gain weight because they cannot control themselves, because they are weak or morally flawed or because they choose to eat unhealthy foods when other healthy options are available...Obesity is not a character flaw. It is a normal response to an abnormal environment."
When we zoom out to examine public health over the decades and look closely at the changes that have occurred in our food environments over the same period, the influence the latter has had on our families is obvious. It’s not some grand coincidence that 60% of the Standard American Diet is made up of ultra-processed food products. Or that we’re consuming twice as much animal protein, sodium, and sugar than recommended. 9 out of 10 of us are not accidentally eating too few fruits and vegetables. Clearly, abnormal environments we have aplenty.
The current diet-related public health crisis is too massive to have happened by chance. It didn’t happen because of the personal-failings of 300 million-plus individuals. Yes, individuals are making choices, but within a system that values our health very little. We’re simply responding to the food environments surrounding us, and - one more time for the people in the back - as our food environments have become less healthy, so have we. As adults, we’re making choices from predetermined menus and store shelves stocked with cheap (but undeniably delicious) food type products. Worse still, we’re asking children to do the same with even less agency and influence. In all fairness given the circumstances, most of us would argue we’re doing the best we can - for ourselves and our families.
So even if we have some semblance of personal choice, that choice is only as healthy as our food environments allow. Logically speaking, that means if want healthier families in the decade to come, we need healthier food environments in our communities. To quote Professor Kirk once again,
"There can be no dispute that everyone has a right to good health. But if we want to improve the lives of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, wherever they live in the world, then we must, as a society, commit to making healthy choices easier for everyone to adopt."
Although many technological advancements have been made in the years since, like our friends in the 1970s, we still can’t predict the future. Regrettably. But unlike them, we have the benefit of hindsight. What we do with it matters now more than ever. Heading into this next decade, we have to decide what we want for our families.
We can continue to place the blame on individual people, parents, and/or communities. Or, we can call attention to the root of the problem and demand better from the institutions and people who serve our families. We can’t afford to waste another ten years fighting one another, so let’s advocate for change in our schools and hospitals and spend the next ten years championing policy change with our elected officials. Now is the time to fight for a healthier food system. Not ten years from now, and not ten years ago.