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When the healthy choice is the easy choice, that's the one people will make

Posted Sep 22 2008 11:06am

Around the same time that the Diabetes Prevention Program in 1992 proved that losing a moderate amount of weight (7%--about 10 or 15 pounds for many people who are overweight) and getting 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week can possibly prevent diabetes, the Finns ran a similar study and came up with similar results.

But there the similarity ends. The Finns actually did something about it. For the past 15 years they’ve been building parks and bicycle paths, changing foods available in schools and restaurants: they've been making healthy choices easier to make. And people have been losing weight, getting fitter and lowering the incidence of type 2 diabetes in Finland. 

As Dr. Pekka Puska, Director General of the National Public Health Institute says in Dr. Francine Kaufman’s documentary, Diabetes Global Epidemic, “You can give people all kinds of information but unless you make the healthy choice the easy choice, it’s not going to be the one people make." The key is connecting the dots from information to action, so in Finland city planning has changed direction so people can more easily be physically active. The central lesson from Finland’s success is it’s human nature to make the easy choice and when you make the easy choice the healthy choice, people will follow: fitness trails now fill Finland's cities and people who otherwise would not be, are on them.

I had the opportunity to reflect on this last week when out of my home town of New York City I was in the heartland, attending a conference in St. Louis. The first morning I was abruptly reminded and saddened to see how poor the choices are across much of America to make healthy choices when it comes to eating. Lodged at a very lovely, star-studded hotel, I was frankly appalled at the dismal breakfast buffet. It appeared the best way to make a healthy choice was to get on line for the fresh omelets. So I did. I got a spinach omelet dripping in butter and when I asked for lettuce and tomato instead of potatoes both grill chefs looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.

Surveying the breakfast buffet, on tap were gummy scrambled eggs, fruits in canned syrup, bacon, sausage, biscuits with coagulated gravy, sweetened, flavored yogurt, frosted cold cereals and only instant oatmeal in only sweetened flavors like Apple and Cinnamon, Maple Syrup and Brown Sugar. 

My whole four days were an enormous effort to work around the unhealthy selection of foods plentifully available and try to find a few nutritious choices. The one evening my colleagues and I went off premises we took a short ride into historic downtown St. Charles for dinner. Having asked our driver for a good restaurant that offered a variety of foods he recommended Lewis & Clark. It appeared to be a typical family restaurant chain like a Fridays or Houstons. Scanning the menu I immediately saw almost everything was fried. We settled on what I thought would be the healthiest choices: guacamole and a spinach-artichoke dip for appetizers. Both came creamed and with a mound of corn chips. Luckily there were two fish entrees which you could order grilled with steamed veggies which I did. If this is how America eats because this is what we're offered, how can we expect people will not be fat?

The straw that broke my back was breakfast at the St. Louis airport the day I left. In the new concourse there was only one place to sit and eat a meal, at the bar. I ordered scrambled eggs which came with sausage, only white sourdough bread, and when I asked if they could substitute lettuce and tomato for the hash browns, I got my second startled lettuce-and-tomato look. The eggs tasted like they came out of a plastic container not a chicken, the sausage was so salty I'm sure it spiked my blood pressure right then and there, the coffee incidentally was burnt. I felt almost sick after that meal, physically and spiritually. 

Understand, I’m not picking on St. Louis and I’m not saying everyone in this country makes poor health choices; I am saying I experienced how difficult it was to make healthy choices in the course of a day in an ordinary American city, and that it's shameful to hawk at us on morning news programs and magazines that we have to change our eating habits and then make it almost impossible to do so. 

America, shape up--and I'm not talking to those of you who have pounds to lose--but our agriculturalists, industrialists and politicians who let the food industry and big business get away with murder--because frankly they're killing us.


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