Americans have forgotten how to eat. Or at least, what to eat. What once seemed like an instinctive natural act is now proving to be more of a learned behavior. And what we’ve learned often doesn’t make us healthy.
“We are living chemical factories, and what we put in our bodies not only influences how we feel today, but how our quality of life will be in the future,” says Janet Beary, president of the Washington State Dietetic Association. Beary is the director in the coordinated program in dietetics nutrition and exercise physiology at the Washington State University Riverpoint campus. What was true in the past is still true today. “We are what we eat,” she says.
Beary spent 25 years as a registered dietitian in clinical practice working with college-age students struggling with obesity and eating disorders. She’s spent the last 10 years transitioning into the realm of public policy and teaching WSU’s next generation of dietitians.
“The mentality of quick food and cheap food are all contributing factors to the obesity issue,” Beary says. But there’s a price disparity between fruits and vegetables, as opposed to soda and potato chips. Oftentimes, making the right food choice means higher food costs.
Even well-meaning consumers who aren’t cash-strapped may make poor choices. “There’s a lot of misinformation about nutrition out there,” Beary says. “Not everyone has the knowledge and access to healthy foods.”
She’s hoping to help change that. “We can’t afford as a nation to ignore the obesity crisis that is looming in our future,” she says. “The issue has to be approached at the community level. Training and teaching people what to eat and how to eat will take effort from everyone to make a difference.”
But eating is only one piece of the puzzle. Beary is working to craft an integrated approach to diet and exercise. “We need to be mindful [that] our calories — energy in — needs to equal energy out,” she says. “Communities need to provide safe places for people to walk, they need playgrounds, and schools need to promote physical activity.”
Through the American Dietetic Association, Beary has been appointed to the Let’s Move! Campaign, founded by first lady Michelle Obama. The campaign aims to solve the challenge of childhood obesity though comprehensive education, from healthy food in schools to increased physical activity to improved access to healthy, affordable foods.
Children provide a unique glimpse into human behavior, Beary says. And statistics regarding the younger generation are troubling: 17 percent of kids are considered obese. “Research proves that although obesity [is] multifaceted, eating habits are a learned behavior,” Beary says. “We need to start educating our children how to eat. We need to be held accountable as role models within ourselves and our communities.”
Beary stresses there are no good foods or bad foods. All food fits, but in moderation. She even argues that fitness doesn’t need to be measured in the number of miles run or weight on the sale. The health barometer should be much less complex. Do you feel good? Can you bend down and tie your shoes? Can you play with your kids?
“These are the types of questions we need to address,” she says. “We need to start making small changes in people’s lives.”