Ever visited another country and felt like it was easier to make healthy eating choices? You’re not alone.

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On Nutrition |

Read enough health news, and you’ll notice that among the many culprits blamed for America’s poor health and increasing waistlines, the modern food environment is often painted as Enemy Number One. There’s good reason to look to our food environment. For one thing, it’s changed significantly in the last 70 years or so. That’s a blip in our evolutionary history, and there’s legitimate concern about how an ever-present supply of foods that are designed to be highly palatable may intersect with our genes, which remain more suited to a time where food was less processed and less abundant.

A series of articles in the January issue of the journal Obesity suggests that today’s continuous access to high-calorie food, combined with sedentary jobs and the luxury of spending most of our time in climate-controlled buildings may be contributing to weight gain. While our “formal” physical activity has changed little over the decades, our work has — and our total daily activity is mostly determined by our jobs. Lack of activity isn’t good for anyone, regardless of weight.

I recently heard someone talk about how his health improved dramatically during a year in Paris, because even though he thoroughly enjoyed the cheese and wine, food quality was better, portion sizes smaller — and he walked everywhere. That jives with my observations during visits to Paris. Yes, the bread, cheese, pastries and wine are good, plentiful and inexpensive — but so is fresh produce. Similarly, one of my patients recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica, and she remarked how easy it was to live healthfully there, with all the fresh fish and produce, the relative absence of highly processed food, and a physical environment that encourages walking and swimming.

Other places in the world may have environments that make it easy — and pleasurable — to make the healthy choice, but does this mean we are doomed here at home? No. In any grocery store, you can find fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, eggs, fish, dairy, poultry and meat. And thanks to the magic of online shopping, harder-to-find items are not so hard to find anymore. But yes, we also have displays of cookies, soda and chips taunting us at every turn.

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A few years ago, I interviewed nutrition professor and consumer activist Marion Nestle. She said that most people believe that other people are influenced by food advertising messages, but they themselves are not. The fact is that no one is immune to these powerful messages — if we were, companies wouldn’t spend so much money on advertising.

Yes, our environment can have an undesirable effect on our health — but only if we let it. I was recently listening to a talk by psychologist Elisha Goldstein, co-founder of the Center For Mindful Living. He said that our social and physical environments play a big role in successful habit change, and had this suggestion: “Create the pool you want to be swimming in.”

  • Spend more time with people who are doing what you want to do. Take a cooking class with a friend. Join a walking group.
  • Enrich your physical environment. When you look around, does what you see inspire you to take actions that support health? Do you need to clear your kitchen counter of clutter? Create a quiet space to do yoga?
  • Practice being mindful and aware of your thoughts and actions. This is an antidote to blind impulses, autopilot responses, old habits — and those food advertisements.