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Why Confusion Reigns When It Comes to Healthy Eating...

23/07/2015 17:21 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

As a nation, we continue to struggle with our obesity. We know it's bad for us - it's hard not to, with people like me banging on about it all the time (sorry, but as a doctor, that's my job!). We know we should be eating healthily... but we clearly aren't managing quite as well as we could.

Why?

1. Junk food temptations

Part of the problem is that we are constantly bombarded with tempting high fat and sugar, heavily processed foods - which can, let's face it, taste delicious. With such temptations, it's difficult to resist. If we try, though, we can find equally delicious foods that are much healthier. However, that's the crux. If it takes more effort to find those foods, then we revert to the default less-healthy options especially if we are in a rush, hungry or in need of a quick energy fix.

2. Confusing health food messages

The second problem is that we are confused by conflicting health messages. Not a day goes by without a new announcement on what we should, or shouldn't be eating. Despite efforts by many medics and scientists to cut through this confusion, it seems that the message just isn't getting through.

The Grocery Eye survey, from Future Thinking, which provides an annual update on the attitudes of supermarket shoppers, has just reported that the UK population is still struggling to understand whether they should be cutting out sugar, fat or both. These findings come despite some pretty big marketing campaigns by groups such as Action on Sugar, and recent World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on the amount of sugar we should be consuming.

So how much sugar should we be consuming?

The WHO recommends that we have no more than 12 teaspoons (preferably six) of added sugar per day. Added sugar is any sugar other than that found in whole fruit or milk so don't go thinking that 'natural honey', 'sweetened with pure apple juice' or all those other nice sounding labels are ok! We've been subjected to all of that publicity on the harmful levels of sugar in certain food and drink - and yet more than half of over 2000 consumers surveyed have not changed their eating habits as a result. It's just not getting through ... or perhaps the lure of those sweet treats is just too great to avoid?

Diets vs. Healthier Eating

I found it really interesting that half of respondents had been on a diet in the past year and just under half reported that they had tried to be healthier... but there was a difference between these two groups. 'Dieting' tended to be associated with avoiding 'bad' food, whereas being healthy was related more with eating greater amounts of fruit and vegetables, lower salt and sugar... a far better goal to aim for and much easier to sustain.

Fats - a worthy villain?

Only a third of people surveyed felt that they have a healthy diet... and many still focus on fat content as the most important indicator of a healthy product. That's despite a lot of recent media focus on fats not being the total villains that they were once portrayed to be. What many people don't realise is that 'low-fat' products may be bulked up with other ingredients, including sugar, to make them more palatable. They may be low-fat, for sure... but that doesn't necessarily mean they are any better for us at all.

The 'cost' of our health

Other than confusion about what to eat, respondents felt that cost issues put them off buying healthy products with 65% of people stating that healthy eating is more expensive than eating unhealthily. Of course, that isn't necessarily true, but when we are looking for quick, convenient meals and aren't able or prepared to cook from scratch, healthier foods can work out more expensive as they are more likely to have better quality ingredients and less likely to be mass produced. However, it's fair to say that less scrupulous manufacturers are adding a premium to their prices, cashing in on the knowledge that people are trying to buy food that is marketed as healthier (when it isn't necessarily the case).

Setting a good example

Worryingly though, only half of adults think they have the overall responsibility for encouraging healthy eating whilst around 60% think parents are responsible for their children's healthy eating - a drop from the survey results of the previous year. So, are the remaining 40 odd percent happy to leave the health and eating habits of their children to someone else?! I'm not sure I would be!

Surely the responsibility for eating healthily has got to lie with us - we are the ones who buy, prepare and eat the food so what goes into our mouths is up to us. However, personal responsibility alone is failing us - our willpower isn't enough to fight the constant temptation that surrounds us and I think it is about time that the food outlets, manufacturers and general retailers are forced to take responsibility too - we need their help as we can't do it all on our own.

The report's final comment sums it all up very well....

"There continues to be confusion as to what being healthy really means and what foods you should and shouldn't eat. Consumers are bombarded with extensive and often contradictory messages, which are leaving them feeling unengaged and helpless. There is still the need and, more importantly, the desire for more education around what is truly good for us."

So what is the answer?

Making that healthy choice easy, quick and blindingly obvious to find is the key! But for the moment, I guess I will continue to bang on over at Vavista.com about how to eat healthily in the hope that it helps to cut though some of the conflicting messages.