I no longer believe education is the best solution...(part 2)
In Part One of this series, I shared the top two reasons I’ve come to believe nutrition and public health advocacy are more effective than trying to educate people out of the diet-related disease crisis we’re in. Here in Part Two, I’m sharing three more.
3. Our food system hasn’t always been this way
The standard American diet has changed dramatically over the past 70 years. Not that good kind of growth-mindset, glow-up change either. More like a swift spiral into hyper-processed, lab created, cheeto-dust-stained everything kind of change.
Our food system hasn’t always been this way and it didn’t change because consumers invented, manufactured, marketed, and sold frozen pizza rolls, fish sticks, and corn dogs en masse. It’s not that 320 million Americans got together and decided to forgo all nutrition sense and trade in whole, unprocessed foods for nutrient-poor, calorie-dense food-type products.
Unfortunately, a few food industry executives, agriculture lobbyists, and advertising companies did though. And thus began the shift toward an ever-increasingly imbalanced food system. Cheap, easy to produce and prepare processed foods high in sodium, sugar, saturated fat, and cholesterol have crowded out the fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and unprocessed foods that used to fill our plates.
Even now, though, with more evidence-based nutrition science available than ever before, people continue to make food choices that jeopardize their health and the health of their loved ones. Even though we know those cheap, hyper-processed foods are bad for our bodies, they’ve come to make-up almost 60% of our diets. Why? Because the food system and our food environments influence behavior more than nutrition education alone can compensate for.
Because the number one determiner of food choice is food environment, as the food environments changed, so did our eating habits.
When our food system looked different, we ate differently.
Today, we can’t count on the food industry to suddenly begin caring more about our health than their quarterly earnings, so it’s up to us to fight for a food system that does. Institutional and political advocacy is the systems-level fight we have to take on in order to make that happen.
4. Compared to advocacy, nutrition education is expensive
High quality, rigorous nutrition education is resource-intensive.
Think of it this way: if one person or organization has a finite set of resources and they invest those resources into educating individuals, the best-case scenario is that slowly, steadily, some individuals change their behavior. Consider the scale of the problem and you’ll quickly realize the individual education process takes a lot of time, money, energy, and person-power to make it work.
Now, imagine if that same person or organization invested some of those resources into influencing a key decision- or policy-maker. The best case scenario in that case would be improved policies and systems that support change for many many more people than education alone can reach.
Like I mentioned earlier, the key factor in food choice is food environment, so advocacy that influences a food environment like a hospital or school cafeteria, or changes a policy that sets nutrition standards for 30 million kids, means even without direct nutrition education, more people are likely to make default healthier choices.
The same principle that applies to “if healthy food isn’t a choice, then no one can choose healthy food” applies to unhealthy foods too. If deep-fried chicken nuggets aren’t a choice, then no one can choose them. Investing in policies and practices that remove or limit the least healthy, most dangerous food products from menus is so much more resource-efficient than trying to convince individuals to make specific, logical, healthy choices in the lunch line (when they’re stressed by hunger!)
5. The quality and safety of nutrition education is not guaranteed
I’m not sure about you, but in general, I tend not to trust nutrition advice from anyone other than professionals. There are too many industry-funded “studies” that propagate misinformation and cause deliberate confusion. No time is this more evident than when a new fad diet emerges. Suddenly, everyone around me is an expert on the ways in which grass-fed beef metabolizes in my body and how that impacts insulin production and why that’s better for me than a bowl of fresh fruit (hypothetically, of course).
I’m sorry but I don’t care how many four-paragraph articles someone read about certain ways of eating in that month’s edition of the health magazine to which they subscribe. That doesn’t cut it when it comes to my health - and it especially doesn’t cut it when it comes to my daughter’s health. Similar to medical advice, I’m prone to rely on objective experts who ground their advice in high-quality science.
Here’s a fun/terrifying fact: anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. There are certifications, of course, but they’re not required and no agency is regulating the quality or safety of nutrition advice.
I bring this up to highlight the fact that super unqualified people are already spreading misinformation and influencing the dietary patterns of large groups of people unchecked. Search the hashtag #nutrition or #nutritionist on any social media platform and you’ll see what I mean. Even if I thought nutrition education was the solution to the diet-related disease epidemic, I would still be highly skeptical about who was doing the educating and the actual quality of said education.
In addition to junk-science aplenty, when it comes to nutrition education, the opportunity for major conflicts of interest are enormous.
Those conflicts of interest already exist at the policy-level (USDA being responsible for both agricultural production and nutrition advice, not a good match), and fighting that battle is difficult beyond measure as it is. Industry-funded “nutritionists” have long been manipulating the behavior of individuals, and it’s getting much worse. The food industry has capitalized on the rise of “influencers” - foregoing already unreliable nutrition experts in favor of online celebrities “educating” their followers on the benefits of whatever hashtag Keto product they’re selling.
Going door-to-door, or more likely screen-to-screen, trying to undo the damage of that advice is nearly impossible.
Advocacy, on the other hand, provides us the opportunity to campaign for stronger regulations around nutrition-science and industry-influence, as well as the policies born from those two things. Thus, improving the quality (and truthfulness) of nutrition education as well as our community food environments. Win-win.
In closing, once again, I want to clarify I’m not advocating we stop trying to educate people about healthy habits and good nutrition - and all that entails (shopping, cooking, etc...) Not by a long shot.
What I am hoping you get out of this is that education alone is not enough, and by-and-large we’re not doing enough to address the systems that promote unhealthy behaviors. It’s hard to educate our way around systems that work against us - which is why I hope you’ll join us in advocating for a better, more supportive, health-centered food system.
Audrey Lawson-Sanchez is the founder and executive director of Balanced. She lives in Kansas City with her daughter, husband, and admittedly too many pets.
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