"My grandmother lived until 98, and she swears it was from never eating a hot dog," said Dr. Donna-Marie Manasseh, chief of Breast Surgery at the Maimonides Cancer Center.
Thought leaders from the health care, academic and media worlds came together for a roundtable hosted by The Atlantic, and supported by Abbott, to discuss nutrition in the United States. Manasseh's quip was met with laughter, but it also spoke to the obstacles many Americans face regarding nutrition and aging. How are people expected to keep up with so much conflicting nutrition guidance?
As attendees shared their perspectives, three key points emerged. First, our mindset about nutrition needs to shift from thinking about it as a reaction to a health diagnosis to viewing it as a preventative measure. But achieving that shift is easier said than done.
Nutrition as Preventive Medicine
Dr. Hakim Bouzamondo, physician and divisional vice president of Global Nutrition Research and Development at Abbott, opened the roundtable discussion with: "Good nutrition is the foundation for good health. And every day science is demonstrating the benefits of nutrition as we age and manage illnesses." But even with so much information available, many are confused about how their food choices affect their health.
Sharing credible nutrition information and shifting mindset are critical to changing the way that we eat. "People are very reactive with nutrition," noted Dr. Christopher Blackwell, a professor at the University of Central Florida. Manasseh had observed this in cancer patients she sees every day. "The moment someone gets breast cancer, they want to know what they should eat. They equate eating well with being sick." But, it's really about prevention too.
By age 40, the aging process is already in motion, and it's difficult to reverse. After 40 years old, a person's muscle mass can begin to decrease by approximately 8 percent each decade. Focusing on nutrition as preventative medicine can help slow this progression. Barbara Grufferman, author of "Love Your Age" and "The Best of Everything After 50" summed it up best: "It's not about lengthening life, but having a good and active life."
The biggest challenge in promoting nutrition as preventative medicine is education. "Proper nutrition starts and ends with education," said Josh Hix, the co-founder of meal delivery service Plated. Starting introductions to nutrition early with things like home economics classes and Alice Water's The Edible Schoolyard Project are valuable, but all agreed there is still work to be done.
Stephen Lincoln, founder and owner of The Protein Bakery, sees the need for education on a daily basis. "Two different customers come in, and they have very different opinions about the amount of sugar in a product and how much is too much," he said.
Nutrition education is key for change, but there's no consensus on how to alter the landscape. With so many different lifestyles and food experiences, it's unlikely that one approach will work for everyone.
If a personalized approach to nutrition is the way to go, there is still work to be done. "It's not a sexy message that there isn't just one diet that works for everyone," said Dana Leigh Smith, senior editor at a health and wellness magazine. Ebenezer Samuel, editor at a fitness magazine, agreed. "I'm trying to tell people that there is no quick fix. It may take three months to get in shape."
Carl Bialik, data science editor at Yelp, thinks emerging technology will make an individualistic approach more possible. "I would like to see more app and technology-driven approaches for showing people what food is doing to them," he said. Yelp has found a way to differentiate types of food in photos uploaded by their users. Bialik suggested this technology could be used in an app that tracks the impacts of food choices and then creates personalized recommendations.
We may be a long way from that app, but Abbott dietitian Abby Sauer suggests we can begin by emphasizing the positive parts of good nutrition. Instead of seeing healthy eating as a chore, people can learn the basics of good nutrition, what works well for them and enjoy the lifelong benefits.