October 11, 2015

Making Healthy Behaviors Attractive

In the July 1 New York Times, there was an interesting article about the effort of the Congressional Black Caucus to get the addition of menthol to cigarettes banned because menthol cigarettes are the choice of 75% of African-American smokers. There is a clear recognition that menthol and other sweeteners added to cigarettes make themmore attractive to vulnerable populations, like young people, minorities with health risks that make smoking health-threatening and young women.

When I read this article, it occurred to me that the misuse of menthol and other sweeteners to attract people to cigarettes can be turned on its head to make healthy foods more attractive to eat. When our younger son, who is now 17 years old, was under 10 years old, we had a great deal of difficulty getting him to eat anything other than junk food. We had particular difficulty getting him to eat green vegetables.

My wife came up with the strategy of letting him put ranch dressing on his vegetables. It obviously increased his caloric intake in a less-than-optimal way, but it helped get him into the habit of eating vegetables. Over time, we started putting the ranch dressing on his vegetables, but we used less and less as time went on. Eventually, by the time he was 13 years old, he was still eating his vegetables, but had been weaned off ranch dressing.

My wife has understood that I have somewhat of a sweet tooth as well, so, over the years, she has incorporated bits of fruit in lettuce salads, fruit-like toppings on seafood, and interesting combinations of vegetables, like avocados, in salads. She has presented healthy food in a very attractive way, so we have eaten moderate portions of healthy food whenever we sit down at dinner tables. On my own, I have basted salmon with mustard before broiling it, squeezed lemon juice on swordfish, and added lemonade to green tea. As a result, our family has found eating healthy foods very attractive.

As we think about our obesity crisis, we need to recognize the reality that asking or forcing children to eat healthy foods when they have become addicted to junk food is going to be unsuccessful unless we can find ways to mimic the sweet flavors and tastes to which they have become accustomed. We also have to find ways of making the healthy food “cool” and a status symbol for young people, as cigarettes have become.

We also have to recognize that how food is presented and packaged matters greatly as well. To the degree that healthy food is made available in attractive packaging and with attractive flavoring at fast food retail outlets at which young people come together, it has a chance of being part of the diet, and, over time, to supplant less healthy food.

I recognize that weaning people from cigarettes is not as simple as making the substitutes flavorful, since the nicotine in the cigarettes is addictive and since there are many reasons people smoke. At the same time, the battle for the health of young people will be fought and won by making good food more fun to eat than bad food, and we can thank the cigarette companies for teaching us the techniques of how to make something people ingest more attractive to them.