Jul 09, 2021
A new study from a Cambridge historian finds that people are at least “complicit” in responsibility for the rising levels of obesity since the late 1980s onwards as they’ve “re-worked, misinterpreted or selectively deployed” advice around healthy eating.
In an article published in Contemporary British History, Dr. Katrina-Louise Moseley makes fresh use of consumer interviews and surveys conducted in England and Wales in the 1980s and 90s to explore why unhealthy eating patterns continued despite new nutritional guidelines being issued decades ago.
She credits grocers and food manufacturers with initially producing and disseminating much of the knowledge about healthy eating as society began focusing on nutrition. Prof. Moseley said in a statement, “It was the food industry rather than politicians or doctors that gave people usable, workable public health messages.”
Skepticism soon followed, however, as consumers still felt overloaded with “confusing, contradictory and unreliable” messages. Words of advice involving “balance” and “moderation” in particular left themselves open to subjective interpretation that often played up convenience.
Many individuals adopted “easy supplementary behaviors,” such as substituting white bread with brown bread to increase fiber intake or swapping whole milk for semi-skimmed milk to reduce fat rather than making sweeping dietary changes.
Complex messaging continues to be a hurdle. In her article, Prof. Moseley contrasts the challenges to the success of Britain’s anti-smoking campaign that changed attitudes around tobacco in the sixties and seventies.
“‘Don’t smoke’ was a clear-cut message but you can’t tell people not to eat,” she said. “Food can’t be rejected outright, it has to remain a part of everyday life, and that makes it so much more complicated. We’re still really struggling with this today.”
While many healthy-eating advocates continue to “cast blame” at the food industry or grocers, Prof. Moseley argues more thought should be put into how people rationalize their eating behaviors and interpret advice about food.
Most commonly taking the blame for subpar eating habits are junk food messaging and their placement in stores, busier lifestyles that drive fast-food purchases, the high cost of healthy food and food deserts. Boredom and stress have also been cited as drivers of binge eating during the pandemic.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why hasn’t greater access to nutritional advice and programs around healthy eating over the last four decades led to healthier diets? Are mixed messages around healthy eating inevitable?
“All of the healthful eating ads and promotions we see seem to me more like public service announcements than anything else.”