health education: healthy eating is a public health problem
The United States is one of the most obese countries in the world. Over 30% of the US adult population is considered to be obese, with more than 40% of adults over 60 falling into the category. A great range of body compositions fall into the obese category, meaning that not everyone classified as obese is at risk of health complications. However, at the start of the decade, the average person in that category was found to incur over $1,400 more in medical expenses than those of a normal weight. While this number has exceeded $1,400 since 2008 due in part to fluctuations economically, obesity-related conditions like strokes, diabetes, and coronary artery problems have caused the cost of obesity to balloon for older populations.
Obesity and Public Health
Generally, personal diet choices have been painted as the culprit of widespread obesity in the US. Until very recently, obesity has been blamed entirely on carelessness, sedentary lifestyles, and a culture of gluttony, which has shifted responsibility for staying healthy entirely onto the shoulders of the individual. This isn’t entirely inaccurate, as lifestyle choices such as diet, sleep, exercise, time spent sitting at a desk, daily screen time along with genetics are considered to be the main contributing factor to obesity.
However, this focus on the individual has caused many to brush aside the socioeconomic factors that influence obesity. Baked into the US socioeconomic infrastructure is an incredible health gauntlet for those in lower income brackets, a group that often includes older adults and home-bound individuals. Food prices, and therefore, diet, are hidden drivers of obesity for lower-income groups, a negative stressor that is often worsened by demographic-based food relationships. For example, compare the price of quality vegetables to a value meal from a fast food chain. If, let’s say, an individual could get a calorie-dense value meal for $5 or a single bundle of quality vegetables for $4, the individual is more likely to purchase the whole ‘meal’ for $5 than the ‘part’ of a meal for $4. The same thinking can be applied to quick, cheap meals like ramen, sodium-dense soups, and premade deli sandwiches compared to more expensive and more time-consuming meals like home-cooked chicken and vegetables.
Food deserts also represent a socioeconomic hurdle to obesity. A food desert is an area that does not have easy access to supermarkets, grocery stores, or other locations to obtain nutritious foods. Rural food deserts generally manifest as areas where the individual experiences extreme distance from large varieties of healthy food and/or food banks, while urban food deserts are population-dense areas that are rife with lower-quality food options–like inexpensive fast food restaurants or corner stores–but with little or no access to high quality grocery stores and/or overtaxed food banks.
For the elderly, low income and food desert are very real problems. Additionally, under the strain of the pandemic, food shopping has become a rocky experience for many older adults. Even with the slow decline of COVID-19, the grocery shopping experience has become a greater challenge under the weight of COVID anxiety and national inventory shortages.
Realities of Ability
Ability is any additional factor that is crucial to understanding nutrition and obesity in older populations. Disability is rarely taken into consideration as a driving factor of poor nutrition in the United States, leaving out an entire population of people with a unique set of challenges. Both mental and physical disabilities can affect an individual’s ability to retrieve food and/or prepare it, leaving many in a situation whether they either are not getting enough nutrition or are boxed into eating fast food or other quick, pre-prepared solutions. Additionally, some forms of mental illness can influence unhealthy binging habits that can ultimately lead to eating disorders, obesity, and other health problems.
Older adults are already at high risk of falling by the wayside in public considerations of national eating habits. For those without a support system, the risk of diet-related health problems increases exponentially for individuals affected by mental or physical disabilities.
Education, Availability, and Public Health
Healthy eating trends have been exploding onto the scene for over a decade. In the past five years alone, supermarkets, chain restaurants, and food delivery services have seen a revolution of ‘organic’, ‘green’, and ‘clean’ foods and drinks. You can’t take a step without tripping over healthy living bloggers, dieticians, and athletes touting better ways to eat and exercise–which, in many ways, is a good thing! However, this focus on treating our bodies better still doesn’t serve everyone in the population. Until healthy, nutritious foods are affordable and easily accessible to everyone, nutrition and obesity will continue to be a public health issue.
The path to eliminating obesity and poor nutrition is a long one, but education is the first step in helping those who need it most. If you are food-secure and able, consider assisting in food delivery with your local food bank, or cooking a nutritious meal for an elderly neighbor. Organizations like Heart of Dinner in New York City organize food prep and delivery runs for elderly members of their community. Don’t be afraid to talk to an older relative or neighbor about their dietary needs and if they need assistance in removing barriers to healthier eating.
If you are someone who falls into a low-income, disabled, or similar category, here are some resources for avoiding the dangers of poor nutrition:
- Nutrition.gov Food Assistance Programs
- The CDC’s Guide to Healthy Living
- Healthier Food Retail: An Action Guide for Public Health Practitioners
- America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative Resource Guide