Posts Tagged by the environment and your health

Eating Local Means Eating Healthy, Right?

Ever since moving to Vermont, Evan and I have really been taking advantage of local foods and homemade cooking. Which would be super awesome and healthy…if that local fare wasn’t primarily cheddar cheese, bread, and our new favorite craft beer. And the homemade stuff wasn’t primarily baked goods.

Okay, so there’s been some healthy stuff mixed in there too. We try to buy local produce whenever we can and we always get our eggs from a local farm. We rarely eat out and never get take out (even if that’s only because take out doesn’t actually exist up here…).

basil plant

We’ve also been experimenting with new recipes. My love for cooking has been rekindled now that I have a partner to help out/cook for. And Evan has gotten into it too — by making his own pasta sauce, vegetable broth, and even trying out homemade seitan (I’ll post the recipe if/when we ever perfect it!).

vegetable broth_2

vegetable broth_2

But for all the healthy foods, there’s been plenty of unhealthy stuff too. We pretty much live off of cheese, have taken it upon ourselves to keep the local bread bakery in business, and have made it our mission to sample every single kind of McNeill’s brew on the market.

You can’t really blame us though. When you live right near the absolute best cheddar cheese in all of the United States, how can you not consume a pound a week?

Grafton 3yr raw milk(Source)

Plus, the bakery offers different types of breads on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So I go on Monday to get my Maple Oat bread, Wednesday to get my Ciabatta, and by Friday, that Cinnamon Raisin is looking pretty good. (I mean — you’ve got to have variety, right??)

Add to that the fact that I got this beautiful new toy as a wedding gift from my sister-in-law, and you can see how there’s been an overabundance of baked goods, saturated fats, and delicious carbohydrates in this house ever since.

kitchenaid

I probably would have gone on my merry cheese-eating, beer drinking, dessert-inhaling ways for months if I hadn’t made a startling discovery the other day. As I went to get dressed for a run, I realized that my running shorts — pants that are supposed to be roomy and comfortable — were starting to get just a little too snug.

Now I’m really not someone who obsesses over weight. I don’t own a scale and I accepted the way my body was built a long time ago. But…when your running shorts stop fitting you so well, you know you have a bit of a problem.

I’ve read enough about people gaining weight after they got married to know that it’s a pretty common thing. But for whatever reason I just sort of figured I was immune to it. After all, I cooked for Evan all the time even before the wedding, I knew how to eat healthy, and I’m training for a marathon. Clearly running more means I can eat whatever I want…right? Plus, like I said — we’re more focused on eating local and cooking meals at home now than ever before. And I thought all local and homemade foods were healthy! Isn’t that what the blogging world sort of tells you anyway?

Obviously I know that just because something is made in my own kitchen or a kitchen down the street doesn’t mean that it should be consumed in large quantities. But my point is that it can be easy to fall into that trap. I didn’t actually think we were eating all that poorly until I took a step back and looked at just how much of my favorite foods I was consuming.

I’m not going to stop eating cheese (that would be sad) or buying fresh bread, but it might be time to cut back on the baked goods just a little bit. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to try to be more mindful the next time I want to consume an entire block of cheddar in one sitting.

…not until after this weekend, though. I’m heading back to Rhode Island for a special someone’s wedding, and I think that calls for celebrating with unlimited cheese and dessert, don’t you?

 

The Power of Place

How much does where you live impact your health?

Do you ever have one of those “aha” moments when things just click for you in a different way? When something you’ve already known for a long time finally hits home? That’s what happened to me last week – It only took running across the country to realize it.

See, in my line of work we talk a lot about “place” – about the environment a person lives in and how that affects his or her health. From an individual’s social situation, to how easy (or tough) it is to get to a grocery store, to whether or not there are parks, or open space, or sidewalks or bike lanes – anything that can help a person be active in their community. Studies have found that living near a recreation center, or close to your job or stores, within a supportive social environment, or in a neighborhood that is walkable (safe, has useable sidewalks, etc.) can all increase physical activity (source). Basically, neighborhoods that were designed for pedestrians instead of cars increase the chances that residents will be more active, and decrease their risk for overweight and obesity.

walkable neighborhoodPhoto via skunks

My job, in part, is to talk about the factors that make it easier for people to be active, and help remove barriers to physical activity in communities.

Even though I think and talk about this stuff all day long, it didn’t really hit home in my own life. I mean, no one ever said that someone who lives in a less walkable neighborhood will find it impossible to exercise – just that the better designed your neighborhood is, the easier it will be. And in case you haven’t noticed, I sort of like to exercise. I pick endurance events to train for, and even though I live in a very small state, for the most part, I enjoy running around it. I figured where I actually lived wasn’t going to affect that at all.

But then I moved. And I found myself struggling to find the motivation to run that I once had. I found myself feeling unsettled in my new place. At first, I blamed it on just being stuck in a rut. On the start of summer (and the heat!), and how I’ve been traveling so much that I haven’t really been able to take the time to settle in. I kept trying to rationalize this all in my mind, but nothing made sense. …until I went to San Diego.

IMG_0884

Downtown San Diego vs. My Neighborhood

San Diego

For those of you who have never been, San Diego is like my dream-land. People are out being active all the time. Biking, running, walking the dog, walking themselves. No matter the time of day, people were outside.

A lot of this has to do with the environment.

Seaport_Village(source)

The weather is perfect – low humidity, lots of sun, temperatures that rarely go above 75. There is plenty of public transportation – a light rail system, buses that run on a regular schedule (ahem, RIPTA). There are many recreation options – pocket parks around every corner, a bike path that runs along the rail system, the beautiful Embarcadero and path that runs along the water’s edge.

sandiego_harbor(source)

Sidewalks are wide and on both sides of the street. There are walkways built that connect pedestrians to destinations and parks.

MLK Promenade San Diego(source)

And there are many places to walk to – including restaurants, shops, and even a full service grocery store.

SanDiego_gaslamp(source)

 

My Neighborhood

For the sake of privacy, I’m not going to show you pictures of my neighborhood, or tell you where it is (though I’m sure those of you in RI can easily guess). But trust me when I say that it is nothing like San Diego.

The weather is all over the place – we have a little thing called “seasons” on the East Coast, and while I love summer and fall (and parts of spring), the weather is not always ideal for being outdoors. We deal with freezing temperatures and snow in winter; scorching temperatures and heat in summer.

The public transportation system is less than reliable. You can take a train to MA, but not around RI. The bus system is all funneled through downtown (not exactly convenient) and only a fraction of the buses actually run regularly…or on time.

While I do have sidewalks in my neighborhood, the recreation options are lacking. There is one small park by my house that everyone uses as a bathroom for their dogs (I can’t complain, I do too). And while there is a bike lane or two nearby, the surrounding area is overgrown and deserted. Traffic forces me to stop on the run every few minutes, and when I’m running, I’m not one of the happy crowd of runners, walkers, and cyclists. There are no other runners to smile at as I pass. Instead, people look at me like I’m crazy. There are places to walk to, but that mostly includes restaurants. And while I can’t complain about the fact that there are many delicious places to eat within steps of my home, that doesn’t exactly encourage an active lifestyle. If you could walk to restaurants but not a grocery store or a nice place to run, you tell me what you’d be most likely to spend your time doing.

So What??

As much as it may sound like it, I’m not trying to knock Little Rhodey. And I’m not trying to find an excuse for my decreased motivation to run, or blame my environment for not being able to workout (guess I’ll just take up recreational eating instead). I know ultimately, the choice to keep running is mine.

But I am saying that the relationship between the environment and behavior is there, and it’s pretty interesting! In my line of work, a lot of the focus is on improving the environment of disadvantaged populations (as it should be), but no one is really immune to it. I find it a little funny that it took me traveling across the country to realize how much where I live impacts my habits – and how much more enjoyable I find walking and running when the area around me supports it.

While that’s not going to change for me anytime soon, now that I’m more aware of it I’m hoping that I can at least try to overcome it. By finding new places to run or just approaching it with a new attitude, I’m hoping running will become a little more fun again.

I’m interested to hear – what is your neighborhood like? Do you run/walk/bike there, or do you travel other places to be active? And how to you think where you live affects your behavior (if at all)?

Final thoughts: I think I might start incorporating polls into HOTR more often! It’s been really fun to watch the results. So far the “it depends” group is ahead (I knew I shouldn’t have included that middle category! Winking smile) with the “great outdoors” close behind. Have you weighed in yet?

Shop Without Ever Leaving Your Car

Rhode Island may be the smallest sized state in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our fair share of accomplishments. Not only does our little state have the longest name (The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations), but it was the first place in the US where polo was played, is home to the world’s largest bug, has the oldest village in New England (Pawtuxet Village), hosted the first open gulf tournament, and apparently never ratified the 18th Amendment…which, in case you’re wondering, was prohibition (I guess we Rhode Islanders love our booze a little too much).

Now it seems we have one more “accomplishment” to add to our name: Rhode Island has become the first state in all of New England to offer a convenience store drive-thru. Yep, you heard right. Cumberland Farms, your favorite gas station and convenience store, has decided to start offering drive-thrus to make our lives easier. The first one is being tested down in Kingston, Rhode Island, and the chain plans to add more by the summer.

Cumberland Farms_drivethru.jpgDon’t they look so happy?

(Source)

So the next time you need to pick up a drink and a roll of toilet paper on the way home, you shouldn’t worry — you can order them both right at the window, along with any of the store’s other 3,000 products!

“We’re not just in the convenience store business, we’re in the business of providing for the on-the-go customer,” said Ari Haseotes, president of the Framingham company.

That’s right — thanks to people like Ari Haseotes, us on-the-go Americans never have to get out of the car again! And it’s a good thing too, because time is money, and the less time you waste doing mundane tasks like walking around a store, the more money in your pocket. Right?

Right…

I just have to ask — how lazy can we get?? Seriously. Last I checked, convenience stores are pretty small. And I’m guessing they only take about 10 to 15 minutes to walk around, tops….and that’s if you walk really, really slow. Most times, you can glance around, identify the right aisle, grab what you need and get out of there in less than 5 minutes. Do we really need the extra few seconds that not having to leave our car will give us?

And even more importantly — do we really need another reason to sit? It seems to me like Americans are sitting pretty well. We sit in our cars to drive to work, we sit at our desk, we sit on the way home (with quick stops, of course, at McDonald’s drive-thru for dinner and Cumbys for a few household items…all the while still sitting) and then we sit on the couch. All. Night. Long. At the rate we’re going, we’ll never have to stand again!

As lovely as that may sound (standing is hard work, I know), our never-ending quest to make things more convenient isn’t exactly doing our health any good. We all know the stats: rates of obesity have increased dramatically over the last 20 years, roughly 30% of the population is obese (source), and this generation of children is the first that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents (source). Not only is America’s weight problem threatening our lives, but it’s expensive too! Direct medical costs from obesity are in the billions of dollars.

So why, then, do we continue to shape the environment in ways that make it easier and easier for us to be unhealthy? And why are we letting our need for fast solutions and a company’s need for greater profits dictate the type of environment we live in? At some point, America needs a wake-up call. Because this Cumberland Farms idea isn’t just a drive-thru, and it’s not just a new and novel concept to make our lives easier. It represents another step in the wrong direction. A step away from encouraging people to get up and get moving. To walk for transportation, to slow down and enjoy life a little. And it represents a sad trend — where the fastest solution will always be the most profitable.

I’m sorry if you think the ability to order a few snacks and some toothpaste through a window without leaving your warm car on a cold winter day is pretty cool. I honestly find the whole thing a bit ridiculous. And it makes me wonder  – where this will ever stop?

I’ve said my piece, now let’s hear yours! Is this drive-thru the epitome of our laziness? Or do you totally disagree, and think it’s the greatest thing since, well the invention of drive-thrus!

Be Healthy, Start a Revolution!

All of us have a certain core set of beliefs that shape who we are and how we interact with the world. These beliefs drive our relationships, our career choices, and even many of our mundane everyday decisions. They are things we hold so dearly that they will not be shaken, no matter what happens in life.

I’m not just talking about things like faith and religion here (don’t worry, I’m not suddenly going down that road on you). There are many other beliefs and values that give us a lens through which we look at the world. For me, one of those beliefs is this: health is a basic human right. With all that is in me, I truly believe that every man, woman, and child on this earth has the right to a healthy life.

Unfortunately, however, we live in a world where this right is not a reality for many people. Health problems are rampant and it seems as though a smaller and smaller percentage of us are actually “healthy.”

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Dr. Mark Hyman argues that health is a right which has been taken from us. The article is a great one, and I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes to read through it. But some of his basic argument is as follows (emphasis added):

Our social, political and economic conditions support obesity and disease. Habits and the default choices in our society are built into the fabric of every segment of our society — families, homes, schools, workplaces, and places of worship, our government institutions and health care centers.

Our current food, social and community environments make it hard for us to make healthy choices. In fact, staying healthy has become almost impossible, which is why almost three quarters of Americans are overweight and one in two Americans have one or more chronic diseases.

I’ve written before about how our environment is making us sick and I’m not going to dwell on it now. Instead, I want to bring your attention to a movement Hyman highlights in his article; a movement born on one principle, that in today’s world being healthy is a revolutionary act. As Hyman so eloquently states:

No single change will help us take back our health. It is the hundreds of little choices we make every day, a hundred small revolutionary acts we can control that will transform our collective health.

2010-12-20-images-HealthRevolutionBooklet457x640.jpg(Source)

The website RevolutionaryAct.com was started by a woman named Pilar Gerasimo as a way to spark a health revolution. The movement is based on 10 revolutionary truths, which are available in the free downloadable manifesto (Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act: A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World) and are also printed in the Huffington Post article. I encourage you to download the manifesto (which also includes 101 revolutionary ways to be healthy — how’s that for inspiration?), but a few of my favorites include:

  1. The way we are living is crazy
  2. This is not about six-pack abs and skinny jeans
  3. Inaction is not an option
  4. The best defense is a good offense (i.e. it’s time to give up diets and focus instead on nourishing our bodies)

The field in which I work is focused on obesity prevention. And in that field, we talk a lot about how the solution to the obesity epidemic (and yes, it is a crisis of epidemic proportions) will be from a multi-pronged approach. That is, attacking the issue at all angles — changing the environment, coming up with new policies, and of course, inspiring more individuals to take responsibility for their health and behavior. The same is true for health as a whole. Not only do we need to change the environment to be more supportive of our health, but we as individuals need to work on making changes for ourselves, our families, and our communities that will help make this world a healthier place for each and every individual.

As the new year approaches, it’s time to set new goals and look ahead toward all the promises and the possibilities 2011 holds. There’s truly no better time to start taking back control of your health, and to work to improve the health of others.

So what are you waiting for? Join the revolution today and be a part of the movement that aims to take back something we all have a fundamental right to: our health.

“It’s the environment, stupid.”

Okay, so I realize that starting off a post by calling you stupid isn’t exactly the best way to gain readers. But we all know I don’t really mean you. So just hear me out. And I promise I won’t call you stupid again!

Have you ever come across an article that so perfectly expresses everything you want to say, that you wish you wrote it yourself?

That’s what happened yesterday, when I found this article in the Business section of the New York Times. Now, I know what you’re thinking – this is a health blog. Why is this girl suddenly getting so fired up about business?? Well – I’m not. Not really, anyway. But the truth is that health affects all aspects of life. And even though being healthy makes you feel better and improves your personal quality of life, it has an economic impact as well. So a healthy world full of healthy people really benefits us all.

Anyway, the article, called Fixing a World That Fosters Fat, is all about how the environment is negatively impacting our health. This is what public health has been nagging people about for years…so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to see the same message appearing in the business section of a paper.

fast_food (Source)

I would highly recommend reading the entire article. It’s only 1 page long and is really, really good. Or you could just read the summary below, complete with a little HOTR-commentary.

A World that Fosters Fat

We all know that the general health of America is not very good. Chronic disease is on the rise, mostly due to a huge increase in obesity across the nation. The simple solution to this problem? Well, eat less junk and move more, of course!

Obesity US 1994 Percent of Obese Adults (BMI >=30) in the US in 1994


Obesity US 2009Percent of Obese Adults in US 15 years later (2009)

(Source)

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Anyone who has ever worked in the field of behavior change knows that it’s pretty tough to get people to change their habits, especially if they aren’t ready to make that change. To make the issue even more complicated, we live in an environment that is not very supportive of a healthy lifestyle. We only have to make a trip to our local grocery store (if we even have one!) to see this is true. What are the most expensive things in there? The fresh organic produce, and the whole, minimally processed foods. On top of this, we work longer hours, have longer commutes, are bombarded with unhealthy advertising and cheap fast food chains, and don’t always have a safe, affordable place to exercise.

Dr. Brownell, who is the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale says:

“Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat junk food and you should exercise. But the environment makes it so difficult that fewer people can do these things, and then you have a public health catastrophe.”

So then, what should we do? To put it simply — we need to stop relying solely on trying to change individual behavior. You can’t expect a person to stick with new, healthy habits if you put them back into the same unhealthy environment. In order to help people make these lifestyle shifts, we need to change the culture and the environment in which they live.

This is, in essence, what the course I attended last week was all about (for more info on that, click here). Putting the emphasis on fixing the environment so that healthy choices are made easier.

It’s important to note that I am not suggesting that we as individuals don’t need to take any personal responsibility for our own health. This isn’t an excuse to throw up our hands and say, “It’s not my fault. There’s nothing I can do!” But I am recognizing that there are lots of barriers that can get in our way. And depending on the social, economic, and physical environment you are in, those barriers can be pretty intimidating.

Two Potential Fixes

Obviously it’s going to take a lot to completely change our environment. But it’s all about the small steps, right? The article suggests two big fixes that could go a long way in changing America’s habits:

1.) Equalizing food pricing. A big reason that fast food is so cheap is because of the government subsidies of corn and soybeans – two crops that are hugely relied on by the industry. Just how big of an impact do these subsidies have? According to the article, the inflation-adjusted price of a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese went down by 5.44% from 1997 – 2003. On the other hand, from 1997 – 2003, the inflation adjusted price of fruit and veggies rose by 17%! Getting rid of the subsidies that support unhealthy food could fix this trend.

corn_field (Source)

2.) Involving the private sector. The health problems caused by obesity and its related chronic diseases cost employers a lot of money every year. Companies can help promote healthier lifestyles (and reduce these costs), by finding ways to lower work-related stress, building on-site fitness centers, including healthy snacks/drinks in vending machines, and offering wellness programs and incentives.

vending machine_veggies(Source)

These aren’t the only things that need to be done, but they do symbolize an overall shift in our culture. A culture that needs to start valuing equal access to healthy, affordable foods and safe places to exercise and play. And a culture that puts more emphasis on the joy of cooking and exercising and less effort into finding the quick, simple solution.

The environment’s affect on us is a complicated one. To learn more, I would highly recommend watching the documentary Unnatural Causes, if you haven’t already. It’s a 7-part documentary put out by PBS that’s all about how the social and physical environments we live in impact our health. The entire series is pretty long (about 4 hours) but it is split up into 7 different episodes. You can learn more about each episode and see clips from the film here.

**In case you didn’t read it and now think I’m just an extremely rude person, the title of this post is a direct quote from the article.