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Challenging America's food culture

Jon Mould

When you were a child, you may have been told by your parents to finish everything on your plate.  You may also have been forced to eat vegetables as punishment or you were given candy as a reward for good behavior.  While such approaches to eating can be helpful in some circumstances, they are usually unhealthy and can contribute to obesity. 

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Cynthia Morrow talks about the unhealthy eating habits that are ingrained in American culture.  Morrow is a public health physician and teaches public health and preventive medicine at Upstate Medical University.

We may not realize it, but many of our eating habits come from cultural norms that were impressed upon us as children.    

“Everything about food is based on our culture,” Morrow says.

Culture can also influence how parents raise their children.  Many of us find it hard to leave food on our plates, a tendency that can be traced back to our early years. 

Today, portion sizes are generally larger than they should be and can encourage people to eat past the point of being full.  When people strive to clear their plates, they increase their risk for obesity and other diseases.

“That family culture, that family history, that tradition can sometimes sabotage our very best interests to be healthy…we’ve normalized the abnormal,” Morrow says.

Another unhealthy practice that Morrow describes is rewarding children for good behavior with sweets.  Morrow says that such a practice “unduly glamorizes” sugary foods.  She says birthday celebrations at schools also encourage poor eating habits because they usually involve cupcakes or other dessert items.

“It’s completely inappropriate for it to be in the school system,” Morrow says.

It may be difficult to fight these dietary tendencies, but Morrow says there are a few easy things that you can do to reduce them.

Switching to smaller plate and bowl sizes helps to discourage overeating.  Acknowledging that you are full is also important.

“We should listen to our bodies [and] we should understand that the feeling of fullness is what we should listen to,” Morrow says.

Morrow also recommends having dessert less frequently and only as a treat. 

In situations where you do not have enough time to cook a meal, Morrow says it helps to prepare a meal in advance so that healthy eating habits can be maintained.

Habits are always hard to break, but Morrow’s tips can help.

“It’s something we can change.”