I no longer believe education is the best solution. (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 29, 2019
In this two-part series, I’m sharing five reasons I’ve come to believe we can’t educate our way out of the current diet-related disease crisis. In Part One I'm sharing the top two reasons, and in Part Two I’ll share the other three.
Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I used to be a teacher. Then, I taught teachers. Then, I was one of the first in the country to be certified as a Real Time Teacher Coach. Then, I worked as the Vice President of Education for a major international nonprofit.
So, I understand the value of education, the value of coaching, and the art and science of behavior change. In fact, it’s one of the things I’m most passionate about.
And it’s exactly because of that understanding that I no longer believe individual education is the most effective way to transform the way most people eat or our food system. To be clear, it is still an absolute non-negotiable part of the solution. But the most effective or singular solution? Not any more.
So what’s my money on? Advocacy. Institutional and political advocacy. Here's why...
1. The system in which people make decisions matters just as much as the decisions people make.
Nutrition education, at its core, is about helping people make decisions. Improving peoples’ knowledge and skills and influencing their mindsets and beliefs is all in service to healthier decision making.
The fact remains: people cannot make healthier decisions if those decisions literally do not exist - or they’re inaccessible to them for whatever reason (cost, geography, convenience, etc). Even if some of us have been able to overcome similar barriers within our own food environments, given what we know about the standard American dietary pattern, it’s clear those barriers are still overwhelmingly limiting to most.
Trying to convince or shame or influence or even educate individuals as a means to change their behavior within a system that actively works against those efforts is not only ineffective, it is damaging to both that individual and the cause. The individual, no matter how committed in theory, will experience frustration and “failure” in reality. Frustrations and failures that, over time, may result in them giving up entirely. Or worse still, doubling down on poor nutrition habits because they (often rightfully) see change as an impossibility.
If we want to see more people making healthier nutrition choices, we have to make those choices convenient, affordable, and accessible to more people. Having good intentions to eat well — a product of good nutrition education — is irrelevant if access to healthier foods is limited or the barriers are too great to reasonably overcome.
2. The scale of the problem is so, so massive.
I’ll avoid going on about current nutrition and diet-related disease public health stats because they’re already listed in basically every other blog post I’ve written and plastered all over our social media, but here’s what I’ll say about this: the size and scope of our country’s diet-related disease epidemic is incomprehensibly large.
You and/or every single person you know is affected in some way by preventable, chronic, and deadly diseases linked to the imbalance of health-promoting (too few) to disease-causing (too many) products in our food system.
Heart disease. Stroke. Hypertension. Type-2 diabetes. Breast cancer. Colon cancer. Prostate cancer. High cholesterol.
All diet-related — or dare I say food-system related — diseases. Try to find someone who isn’t currently experiencing one or more of those and/or find a person who doesn't know someone who is. The odds are against you.
Is the #1 cause of death in our country
Accounts for 90% of all health-care costs
Directly affects 117 million American adults
What other public health epidemic is as far reaching and destructive?
The sheer magnitude of this issue makes it nearly impossible for individual education alone to help enough people. Instead of playing whack-a-mole with individual consumers, trying to change one while others with the same unhealthy habits pop up all around, we have to strike at the root of the problem. Industries and government agencies have, for too long, designed nutrition and regulatory policies that favor business at the expense of individual health.
And frankly, in order to even begin addressing the enormous consequences of those failed policies, practices, and systems, we must address those policies, practices, and systems head-on.
As an example, all the individual consumer-level education in the world won’t change the Federal Nutrition Standards for school food that allow fruit juice to count as a serving of fruit or processed meats to be served daily - and no nutrition educator (or program) has the capacity to educate the 30 million children who eat school food every day.
But our collective advocacy does have the power to demand improved nutrition standards, which in turn, determine what is fed to those same 30 million children each day.
For high impact outcomes, we must engage in high-impact advocacy. Advocacy that reshapes policies and systems.
Read more in part two.