Although as a nation we may be more weight-obsessed than ever before, healthy eating is still a battle ground for many. Dr Sally Norton, a leading UK health expert, NHS weight loss surgeon, and Founder of Vavista Eat Better, Live Better, Work Better Awards explains why confusion over healthy foods continues to be a major problem.

As a nation, we continue to struggle with our obesity. We know it’s bad for us – people like me bang 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 is that?

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. 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.

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.

What foods should be cut out?

healthy eating

Image: m01229

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. That’s despite campaigns by groups such as Action on Sugar, and recent World Health Organisation recommendations that we should be having no more than 12 teaspoons (preferably 6) 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 not getting through … or the lure of those sweet treats is just too great to avoid.

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 suga – a far better goal to aim for and much easier to sustain.

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. This is 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 healthy eating

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 (which isn’t always the case).

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!

Retail pressure and temptation

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, I guess I will continue to bang on about how to eat healthily in the hope that it helps to cut though some of the conflicting messages. And hopefully too, our free-to-enter Vavista Eat Better, Live Better, Work Better Awards scheme will encourage manufacturers to highlight their genuinely healthy products that are easy for consumers to identify. When it all gets just too confusing, look out for the Vavista Award logo that shows we have checked the product out and feel that it ticks the boxes if you are trying to find a healthier option.

Making that healthy choice easy, quick and blindingly obvious to find is the key!