Grab the nearest packaged food product. Now read the ingredients aloud. To anyone in earshot, it probably sounds like you’re learning a new language. Don’t get down on yourself, the only people who can actually pronounce those ingredients with ease are the scientists who invented them.
Next, look at the nutrition label. Chances are, your product has also got a hearty dose of sugar, sodium, trans fat or all three.
Before you say, “That’s why it’s delicious,” allow Bryce Fluellen, a chef and instructor for the American Heart Association, to remind you what the purpose of food is, “Food is supposed to nourish you, not kill you.”
Sound dramatic? If you eat enough of the bad stuff, it’s not. Study after study makes this point. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Surely that laundry list of health ramifications would make anyone think twice about the food they put into their bodies. But the truth is, it doesn’t always work out that way. We humans are nothing if not bad at knowing what’s best for us.
In fact, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who are obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who are obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.”
Bryce Fuellen knows stats like these well. After all, he spends his days teaching kids from third to twelfth grade about the importance of healthy eating through basic cooking skills and nutrition education — work he calls his life’s calling.
After growing up in a family with members who suffered from strokes, heart attacks and a kidney transplant (common obesity-related conditions), Bryce decided that as an adult, he’d work to help prevent conditions like these from befalling future generations. He decided to be part of the solution. And a solution is needed now more than ever.
According to the American Heart Association, nearly one in three (31.8% or 23.9 million) U.S. children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese — and among them, obesity is causing a range of health problems, like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels, that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. The State of Obesity even says that “obesity remains one of the biggest threats to the health of our children and our country.”
To drive the point home, enter former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who says, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
Where does all this lead? Well if Chef Bryce has anything to do with it, to an outcome very different from where we stand today — where approximately 300,000 Americans die from obesity related causes each year. And the chef doesn’t use doom and gloom to make his point, either. It’s about learning to take action.
As a realist, however, Chef Bryce knows that changing ingrained eating habits isn’t easy and that easing into healthier eating is the key to success. “Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress,” he says. “Let’s say you’re eating fast food five days a week; if you cut that down to two, that’s progress.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the Center for Disease Control who notes that “focusing on small but permanent changes in eating and physical activity may work better than a series of short-term changes that can’t be sustained.”
Chef Bryce knows it’s an uphill battle — particularly for children living in lower income households. “If you go somewhere where the income levels are a little bit lower, they don’t have access to healthier food,” he says. “That’s just wrong, there needs to be more of a balance.”
Its been proven over and over again, “Obesity disproportionally affects children from low-income families,” the Center for Disease Control states simply. More specifically, “Children living in low-income neighborhoods are 20 percent to 60 percent more likely to be obese or overweight than children living in high socioeconomic status neighborhoods and healthier built environments,” according to the State of Obesity.
Still, Chef Bryce is hopeful, noting that with the right food education and some resourcefulness (did you know you can buy vegetables at 99 cent stores?) it’s possible to make positive, health-altering changes to our diets.
For Chef Bryce’s students, continuing on a healthy journey long after their lessons requires continual motivation. So he reminds his charged of something we all could benefit from hearing periodically: “Your health is your wealth.”
The catchy phrase is true, but Bryce takes it one step further with this powerful message to his students: “Anything you think about or dream about doing — you won’t be able to if you are in the hospital suffering from diabetes or if you have a heart attack.”
When you connect what you eat and maintaining good health to your hopes and dreams, it’ll really make you think twice about succumbing to habits of overindulging and inactivity. Framing it this way helps turn “I should eat well because I’m told to” or “I should eat well to look good” into “I should eat well because I want to” and “I should eat well because I care about myself and my future.”
In this way, eating healthy becomes something bigger — something truly important.
Arriving at that realization — and changing the way young American’s relate to food and therefore changing the course of America’s obesity epidemic — begins with education. It begins with the simple yet powerful act of teaching children about basic nutrition and basic cooking skills — then providing them with the right motivation. It begins with people like Bryce Fluellen deciding to be part of the solution.