It's a proven fact that most people change their eating habits and lifestyle choices only after a serious health scare such as a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Still, in many cases that may not be enough. Old habits tend to die hard, but often there are also not many alternatives to what they've been doing in terms of eating right and taking care of themselves.
A recent study found that most consumers after being confronted with a major health crisis were still influenced in their choices by factors other than what's good for their health.
For example, people can find it difficult to change their long-established eating habits, says Dr. Yu Ma, an economics professor at Alberta School of Business and author of the study. Another highly influential factor is price, he says. If they get a good deal on a particular item, they will go for it, and if it's too expensive, they will stay away, no matter how much they would benefit healthwise.
Another issue is what he calls the "health halo effect." Most people divide foods simply into two categories: healthy and unhealthy, he says. If something is considered healthful, e.g. a salad or a breakfast cereal, as opposed to a cheeseburger or a sugar-laden donut, people tend to overindulge in the "healthy" stuff without much further thought. We have seen that phenomenon when, for example, fat-free cookies came on the market and many believed they could consume those in almost unlimited quantities because of the absence of fat. Of course, eliminating the fat did not make those cookies less caloric, and the results became apparent soon thereafter.
Another study, this one on heart attack and stroke patients, showed that nearly 15 per cent did not alter their eating and lifestyle habits after the incident, including poor diet choices, lack of exercise and smoking. Less than half of all participants in the study reported having made at least one change, and less than a third said they made several improvements. Only 4 per cent claimed they did everything that was recommended to them to prevent further deterioration of their health.
Much of the unwillingness or inability to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices can be blamed on the widespread confusion among the public due to the ceaseless onslaught of sometimes contradictory messages in the media about health matters. In addition, many of the warnings issued by experts are hard to heed by consumers who are oftentimes ignorant, if not intentionally kept in the dark, about the nutritional quality of their food supply.
For instance, recommendations to avoid high fat, salt and sugar content may be well-meaning, but they are by and large useless when ingredients lists are hard to decipher or when restaurants aren't required to follow any dietary guidelines or to post nutritional information on their menus.
"I think people are interested in making changes and they are heeding the warnings," said Dr. Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the John Hopkins School of Public Health to NBCNews. "But when it comes to food, it's much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don't consider to be a dessert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar." Similar concerns apply to salt in countless processed foods, many of which don't even taste salty, and certain types of fats, some of which are obscured by arbitrary serving descriptions on food labels.
Undoubtedly, more and more people want to be better informed about nutritional health and be empowered to make the right choices. With growing consumer demand for further regulation and protection, that may be feasible over time. But for now, it's an ongoing uphill battle, and most of us have to fend for ourselves as well as we can.