Education, availability help break bad food habits

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 05:21 PM

When this paper commented editorially on the county’s recognition by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize, we also noted the continued challenges we as a community face for better health outcomes.

Some data we noted were from the 2011 Durham County Community Health Assessment concerns.

They include, as we noted in the editorial, obesity and poverty. The two are intertwined and together and separately are pernicious threats to better health.  The assessment’s comments on them seem to bear a bit more discussion – along with a couple developments last week. One holds hope; the other underscores the complexity of dealing with the challenges.

The rise in obesity – true in all ages, especially alarming among young children – has inspired rising concern. As the health assessment noted, “four of the 10 leading causes of death in North Carolina are related to obesity: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some kinds of cancer.”

It went on to say that “poor diet and physical inactivity, both of which are closely associated with obesity, combined were the second leading cause of preventable death in North Carolina in 2007.”

Physical inactivity is pretty widespread across all socio-economic groups. People whose jobs demand hard, physical labor obviously don’t need to worry much about it – the threat to their health is likely to be the toll such labor takes.

But fewer and fewer of us have those jobs. From service-sector jobs right up to the executive suite, for many of us earning a living involves, as Bob Dole once said of the vice presidency, “inside work with no heavy lifting.”

And while poor diet is often a choice – that bacon-and-cheese shrouded megaburger is just too tempting – it often is imposed by poverty.  Low-income folks may turn to unhealthy food because it is cheaper, or because healthier fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, aren’t readily available in the “food deserts” in which they may live.

Here’s where a report out of RTI International last week gives cause for some hope.

Researchers from RTI, Altarum Institute and the U. S. Department of Agriculture found that “a nutrition education program in low-income child care centers can improve a child's at-home consumption of vegetables and low-fat/fat-free milk,” according to press release.

"Many preschool-aged children are not meeting the recommended daily amount of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products," Pam Williams, senior research scientist in RTI's Center for Communication Science and co-author of the study, said in the release. "Our research shows the potential value of nutrition education programs that take place in child care centers to impact what children eat at home."

That’s encouraging.

So, too, are efforts to make healthier food available to people for whom low incomes or geography might be hurdles.  The Durham County Department of Health, as the RWJF award noted, has encouraged corner markets to stock healthier food. And the Durham Farmers’ Market and South Durham Farmers’ Market have not only begun accepting SNAP – the electronic successor to food stamps – but have launched programs to help recipients stretch their buying power.

Education and increased accessibility to healthier food strike me as more productive routes than New York City’s attempt – smacked down by the state’s highest court Thursday – to limit sales of enormous sodas and other sugary drinks.

That’s one of the complicated aspects of this fight against bad habits.

Gulping down a 64-ounce soda at the movies strikes me as a horrible idea, but education and encouraging alternatives are more likely to succeed than “no, you can’t do that.”

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or