Health Watch
By Peggy Biltz and Lori Hoolihan
Taking the ‘Choice’ out of Food Choices?
Limiting access to foods, taxing high-fat foods, establishing a minimum purchase age for certain foods or stocking some snack foods out of customers’ reach are all methods being put in place to help mitigate the overweight problem in this country. Likewise, many schools and departments of education across the country are establishing nutritional standards defining “allowable” snack foods available for sale to schoolchildren.
There is much debate within the nutrition and health communities as to whether regulating healthy choices through such means is an effective — and desirable — way to improve eating habits. To what extent can we expect the consumer to make appropriate and healthy choices on his or her own? Will the enactment of policies preventing access to foods that consumers want and enjoy create a backlash?
On one hand, many public health professionals consider the efforts of individuals insufficient and believe that regulations are needed to help fight obesity. This camp considers the chronic disease impact of “unhealthy” foods a health care cost burden to society and believes that certain foods should be controlled for society’s greater good. Limiting availability and access to foods is considered a necessary action in an environment prompting individuals to make unhealthy choices.
On the other hand, most health professionals agree that policy is by no means the sole solution to obesity and other health problems. Because overweight and obesity are multifaceted problems that can be attributed to more than one specific food, using policy and regulation to dictate food choices to improve health may not bring about the desired result. Research with children has found that restricting access to a snack food resulted in heightened requests for and attempts to obtain and consume the restricted food, actually encouraging the behavior that the restriction was meant to reduce.
Another concern about using legal, economic or regulatory systems to control consumer food choices is the lack of freedom of choice, which Americans have come to expect and demand. How would we react to being informed that a favorite food is only available at a certain time or place, and at a higher price?
Things bode well for dairy under both of these philosophies. Many of the policies enacted in schools and other settings involve replacing sodas and other sweetened beverages with healthy drinks — milk an obvious candidate. Even flavored milks, with their higher sugar content than regular milk, are a preferable choice due to their high nutrient density. Lowfat cheese, yogurt and drinkable yogurts are other healthful snack options.
Nutrition education represents a long-term critical component to making healthy dietary choices. At some point, every child, adolescent and adult will be exposed to a variety of food choices. Without the knowledge of specific foods and their inherent nutrients, and health consequences of over- or under-consumption of these nutrients, consumers will be hard-pressed to make appropriate purchasing and consumption decisions.
The food industry has a role to play in providing nutritional information about products to support consumers in their efforts to manage their weight and overall health. Opportunities abound for developing and marketing food products to meet specific needs. At the same time, nutrition education is critical in arming the consumer with information so that he or she can independently make informed choices. Severely restricting access to food cannot be a substitute to arming people with the skills they need to make healthy food choices on their own, outside of controlled environments.
In the long run, both education and policy approaches that increase knowledge about and access to healthy food choices are complementary and essential efforts to improve our nation’s health.
Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the council’s nutrition research specialist.