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Got the Message? How We Learn About Health & Nutrition

Lately, the American public has been looking at itself in the mirror. What we see before us is someone overweight or more likely obese; someone with unhealthy eating habits that include large portions, high fat, high sodium, and highly processed food; and someone who either has or will have a litany of preventable diseases. We aren’t just unhealthy, we are sick and costing the country a bundle in health care costs.

Last year, the USDA changed dietary guidelines for Americans. The new guidelines recommend focusing on a plant-based diet, limiting sugars and solid fats, and reducing sodium. Perhaps most importantly, while fruit and veggie serving recommendations themselves didn’t change, the USDA’s conclusion was that we consume too few of them.

This latest message is worth sending, but it had to make its way to consumers. It has had those in the food and nutrition industry asking: how can we increase the public consumption of fruits and vegetables? How can we cut portions and eliminate salt?

To further complicate matters, the challenge may not be solely in the message being heard. For instance, according to a study by Supermarket Guru, 42% of us try to follow the dietary guidelines. As they point out, “try” is no doubt the operative word. Even members of the public who got the message, know the message, and could recite the message like a beat cop reciting his Mirandas, may not know what to do with this information.

The result is a second, equally important question: how do we bridge the gap between what we aspire to do when it comes to healthy eating, and actually doing it? The issue has prompted us to look at a few of the pieces of the nutritional puzzle that work together (and apart) to influence the American consumer.

Suppliers: Heroes & Anti-heroes

Some brands profit from obfuscating their unhealthful ingredients and some proffer outright consumer deception. At the same time, some suppliers use positive messages to penetrate the market. Produce for Better Health Foundation along with the Fruits & Veggies More Matters, recently named their 15 Supplier Role Models and Supplier Champions for 2010. They are food suppliers that were recognized for their positive efforts toward the public health initiative that includes eating more fruits and veggies and less salt and fat. Suppliers like the Wild Blueberry Association, Welch’s, the Pear Bureau Northwest, and even McDonald’s were lauded for being positive role models when it comes helping get consumers the message and make it easier for them to eat healthy.

While these suppliers are mini gladiators in the amphitheater of changing America’s costly health and nutrition habits, we know that information can be both good and bad. One part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to continue efforts to understand the best way for consumers to get useful point-of-purchase nutrition information. Today, the value of prominent displays, clear labeling, and messages that connect clearly with the consumer are red hot topics that have stakeholders battling it out in the stadium.

Supermarkets: Passive Profiteer or Potential Partner?

Supermarkets can help us eat better, but as we all know, they can also sabotage our efforts. Our stores hold a lot of power, and they may also be holding a lot of untapped potential to connect with their shoppers. And yet, so much of the time we spend shopping for healthy food is still spent avoiding traps.

For example, we know products at eye level aren’t necessarily good for us – they are just those being given preferred placement. We know that the basics like eggs and milk are in the back, forcing shoppers to walk a gauntlet of temptation. We even know that new stores have adopted indirect aisle-planning strategies that serve to sabotage our efforts to shop for “perimeter” foods like produce and other whole foods.

Must the supermarkets we frequent to feed our families be our nutritional nemesis? In the same Supermarket Guru poll, almost half of consumers said they weren’t sure whether their supermarket made it easy to meet dietary guidelines. The resulting report wielded these challenges: Does your supermarket have a dietitian in the store? Does it offer substitution suggestions such as trying frozen yogurt over ice cream? Does it provide options for meeting guidelines that meet our requirements for good taste?

In short, are our supermarkets passive profiteers or nutritional partners? It seems clear that opportunities exist for stores to take a stronger role in health and wellness – if they are willing.

Messaging: Plain Talk for a New Century

When supermarkets and suppliers fail, we rely on the information around us to make our own good decisions. But messages about health haven’t always been effective. Studies indicate that consumers find it difficult to count calories as a way to keep their nutrition and servings in check; they do not connect with the old pyramid-style guidelines for eating; they fail to understand cryptic nutritional labels and ambiguous health claims on food packaging.

Fortunately, these messages and how they are communicated have begun to change for the better. New guidelines have become increasingly consumer-friendly. Rather than lots of numbers that include grams and calories and fractions, messages are getting straight to the heart of the matter by promoting things like simply eat less, filling plates with color, or changing lifestyle habits like cooking at home and eating fewer processed food.

In one example of the new and improved communication of the health and nutrition message, Fruit & Veggies More Matters conjured up the Half Your Plate concept. In an effort to make serving sizes easy to understand, they urge us to simply fill half our plates with fruits and veggies – that’s it. Even National Nutrition Month 2011, which is being recognized during the month of March, focuses on eating right with color – a message that’s easy to implement by merely looking down at your plate. Armed with these goals, we can make smarter decisions about what we buy at the store, despite all the possible pitfalls.

Programs: Nutrition from the Top Down & the Bottom Up

Improving health and wellness can sometimes be effective if it comes to us from the top down. Recently, the United States Agriculture Secretary announced that the USDA will fund the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, an effort from the USDA to help children change their eating habits and start new consumer habits. The previously mentioned Let’s Move!  program launched by First Lady Michelle Obama aims to solve the problem of obesity within a single generation. Healthy People 2020 was created to establish national health objectives and give communities the tools they need to achieve them. These are just a few examples of top-down programs working to take on a true crisis in health and nutrition.

Smaller-scale programs and bottom-up initiatives in schools, communities and businesses are also making it easier to make choices that help us and our families live better by virtue of being part of them. Many of them exist because someone dared to imagine that those just being born today could grow up in a very different, healthier world.

How did YOU get the message of health?

What message of health and nutrition resonated with you?

Was your mom your messenger? Your doctor? A great book or an inspiring TV personality? Whether it was calorie counting or colorful food, let us know what nutritional messages connected with you – leave us a comment!

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