The Diet-related Disease Epidemic | Nutrition Mythbusters
Balanced is excited to bring to you our Nutrition Mythbusters series in which we debunk eight major myths about the links between diet and health! We believe that accurate, evidence-based nutrition information should be accessible to everyone. That’s why we created this educational series dispelling some of the most common and persistent misconceptions regarding healthy, balanced eating and diet-related disease. You can find the video episode of today's blog on our YouTube channel.
Have you heard this myth before? Diet-related illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity mostly result from individuals’ choices. The food environment has little bearing on a person’s diet.
The fact is that the food environment is the largest determinant of dietary choice, and the active inclusion of more plant-based foods in a given cafeteria, restaurant, or community significantly improves intake of nutrient-dense foods that promote health.
The American industrial food environment as we know it is driven by food and agriculture industries that prioritize profits over health. This means that people’s nutritional needs are often not reflected in the options provided, and as long as profits are prioritized, unhealthy food environments will remain.
The idea that the onus is on the individual to prevent diet-related diseases, rather than the food environment, is not only incorrect but inherently harmful.
This issue of diet-related diseases is incredibly important, but must be discussed with understanding of the systemic, root causes. The prevalence of diet-related diseases in the United States continues to rise dramatically. Diet-related, non-communicable diseases include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, to name just a few. These three diseases alone contribute to almost 700,000 deaths each year.
The undue influence of the food industry on diet begins in childhood. Many children and teens are exposed to aggressive food marketing through television, social media, online gaming and websites. The food advertisements often enticingly promote unhealthy foods. In fact, the majority of food advertisements shown in the United States generate demand for products containing large quantities of health-harming additives: refined sugars, saturated fat, and salt.
As children and teens continue to spend more time on devices, food marketing on new media sources, such as social media, has also increased a whopping 50% in the last 14 years.
Around the world, globalization and corporate interests have contributed to unhealthy food environments. These factors have helped to create food environments that lack healthful, fresh foods and are overabundant in disease-promoting foods, particularly in major metropolitan areas.
The food environments at home, school and the workplace also have an indelible impact on one’s food intake and nutritional status. Over time, this has led to the realization that education alone has proven to be mostly ineffective in swaying people towards a more healthful, plant-forward diet. Nutrition education cannot be a stand-alone solution because several barriers to healthful foods exist, such as food availability, accessibility, and price. Time needed to purchase and prepare healthy, fresh meals must also be taken into account.
Kids’ lunches in schools are not markedly healthier than what you’d find at a fast food restaurant.
Contrary to some reports, school lunches have not significantly improved. School lunch meals remain low in dietary fiber, high in saturated fat, and high in sodium. Corporate interference and food marketing schemes have played a role in unhealthy school food environments. For example, one industry-funded study concluded that consuming processed meats is beneficial to children’s diets. The study, funded by the North American Meat Institute, an industry trade association, determined that processed lunch meats are part of a healthy diet. They concluded that the children consuming processed lunch meats also eat more whole grains, fruit, calcium, potassium, Vitamin C and less sugar than those who do not consume processed lunch meats. This study, of course, did not evaluate the harms associated with consuming processed lunch meats.
Next, it is not enough to simply add nutritious, plant-rich options to the menu; unhealthy options must be removed as well. Vending machines in the school cafeteria are one example. A vending machine containing unhealthy beverages in a school cafeteria has been associated with reduced consumption of a healthful lunch. This is despite the fact that healthful foods and beverages exist in the same space.
It is also important to note that food offered does not equal food consumed. This can be particularly salient in the school environment. Several studies have revealed that “fruit and vegetables are the most wasted parts of the school lunch - up to 42% ending up in the trash”. When unnaturally sweet and salty disease-promoting foods are prevalent alongside healthy produce in the same food environment, all that exposure to marketing and advertising - plus years of habituation to highly palatable processed food - kicks in to create more demand for the less healthy options at the expense of truly nourishing foods.
At home, parents and caretakers—themselves heavily influenced by marketing and industry-shaped norms—play an instrumental role in children’s dietary choices and food environment. In one study, children reported that just the presence of a food at their home was the sole reason for consuming said food. In fact, many children state that they eat whatever is available without further reason.
While we continue to spend most of our time at home, the food industry continues to interfere with healthy eating habits. A multitude of companies including, but not limited to, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Hershey’s, have simultaneously donated funds to those experiencing food insecurity and advertised unhealthy products. These food products are especially problematic as ultra-processed foods and saturated fat contribute to a chronic inflammatory state, which in turn hinders immune function.
It’s clear that the forces shaping our food environments—without our knowledge and largely beyond our control—are what predominantly determine what we eat and therefore how healthy we will be. It is certainly time that we exercise more influence over the food system than it does over us.