Environment, health, & safety

The war on unhealthy food

Food can be dangerous. Americans are subjected to a steady barrage of too much salt, fat, carbohydrates, calories, sugar, food additives, and preservatives. Casualties from this assault include obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. Even fruits and vegetables can cause problems due to pesticide-laden skins. As for dairy products and meat, their nutritious content may be sabotaged by steroids and unnecessary antibiotics. In terms of environmental impact, the trek that food items make from farm or factory to table can boost climate change through “greenhouse gases” generated by transport. Packaged, processed, fatty, and sodium-laden foods are inexpensive and widely available, whereas healthy, organic, fresh, raw, and natural foods are pricey and, in many cases, difficult to access in some areas.

To assist consumers in making healthy, sustainable food decisions, the American Nurses Association (ANA), American Dietetic Association, American Planning Association, and American Public Health Association have developed Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System. These principles address the entire food system from farm to table, worker to eater, agricultural practices to purchase availability. In short, they define the components of a healthy, sustainable food system.

The principles examine the complete life cycle of food: production, processing, packaging, labeling, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal. They emphasize health promotion, sustainability, resilience, diversity, equitability, economic balance, and transparency of food’s lifecycle.

Environmental health issues are at stake when contemplating the current food system. For instance, farming often involves the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, whose runoff can affect the quality of local water. Animal husbandry may use medically important antibiotics as feed additives (for nontherapeutic purposes) or injectable recombinant bovine growth hormones to boost production. These additives can harm human, animal, and environmental health.

Food packaging can be excessive, nonrecyclable, and nonbiodegradable. Food wraps increase solid waste and may contain chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA).

Many studies link BPA exposure to cancer, obesity, and behavioral disorders.

Transport of food adds to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly when long distances are involved. Produce from South America, for example, travels thousands of miles before arriving at northeastern U.S. grocery stores.

There are other health issues related to food, not the least of which is obesity. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 49 of the 50 states had obesity rates at or above 20%. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service 2009 study showed almost 15% of U.S. households have low to very low food security. This seemingly contradictory evidence indicates that potential hunger (caused by low food security) and obesity are close neighbors. This is not surprising when one considers that food access—particularly access to nutritious, fresh food—is difficult in some areas. The problem is especially acute in heavily urban, poverty-stricken areas where food is available only at convenience stores (which sometimes lack means of refrigeration). Also, nutritious, fresh food, even if available, can be more costly.

In light of the food principles’ guidance, ANA suggests the following:

  • Practice sustainable farming of crops that thrive in local areas.
  • Eat beef free of hormones and nontherapeutic anti­biotics, if one opts to eat meat.
  • Plant a garden or community garden, read country-of-origin labels, and buy locally grown food to reduce “food miles” and greenhouse gas emissions generated from transporting food long distances.
  • In urban settings, shop at farmers’ markets and other alternative markets rather than corner convenience stores.

Nurses must be effective healthy food models, educators, and leaders and should emphasize education, access, and respect for cultural diversity—including consumer food choices. The food principles call for a variety of health-promoting food choices for all peoples. Nurses have been seeking such choices in schools and healthcare facilities for years, and ANA is pleased to help bring them to reality.

View the Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System at http://nursingworld.org/MainMenuCategories/WorkplaceSafety/Healthy-Nurse/Principles-of-a-Healthy-Sustainable-Food-System.pdf

Holly Carpenter is a senior staff specialist in ANA’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

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