If I am what I eat, today I am day-old pizza. I am cheesy, greasy, and perhaps a bit saucy. This was not my intention (except for the saucy part depending on how you define the word). But busy at work, I reached for whatever I could find. The options were to go the convenience store several blocks away to piece together a potato chip, chocolate sandwich or scavenge for some leftover food from work meetings. The latter choice brought me to some cardboard pizza inside a cardboard box. And the rest... as they say... was history. Yes, once again, my food environment conquered me.
Think you are in sole control of what you eat? Think again. Your food environment helps govern what you eat. Your food environment is the food sources around you -- the grocery stores, the restaurants, the convenience stores, the work or school cafeteria, the vending machines, etc. Your food environment is not just where you live. It's where you go to school or work. It's the path you take to get to school or work. And it's where you and your friends congregate. It's the food that you have easiest access to at all times of the day... by walking or possibly within reach.
Years ago a popular Monty Python skit featured a restaurant with a menu that included Spam in every item, accompanied by a group of Vikings loudly singing "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spammity Spam, Wonderful Spam."
When surrounded by nothing but Spam, you will eventually eat Spam, no matter how strong your willpower may be. Now your food environment probably has more than just Spam (if not, please write me immediately so that we can do a story on you). But the general point is that your environment determines your food choices.
The power of the food environment rests in part because much of our eating is ad hoc, driven by convenience. Especially when we are stressed or short in time or both, we tend to eat what's around us. Ad hoc eating also occurs when we are distracted professionally or socially. How many times have you been at social gathering and lost count of how many potato chips, French fries, nachos or marshmallow bunnies you have eaten. A friend once inhaled what seemed like a pound of nachos as he tried to muster up the courage to talk to a particular woman. His focus was clearly not the food. Had celery been in front of him, he probably would not have noticed the difference. (Perhaps carrying a bowl of celery should be on my wingman list.)
And with time, you may begin to look like your food environment. Someone I know lived next to a cupcake store and looked more and more like a cupcake with each passing month. Now part of this may have been imagery as we began associating this person with cupcakes. However, part of it was this person partaking in those fluffy bits of heaven much too often. (Of course, this implies no judgment on whether looking like a cupcake is good or bad thing.)
So what should you do about your food environment? You can do five things immediately:
1. Know your food environment.
How well do you really know your food environment? Do you know where the major grocery stores are located and restaurants? If you do, it may not be enough. Ask yourself, how far do you have to walk to get some fresh fruits and vegetables? If the answer is you have to get into a car, then you may live in a bad food environment. Where can you go at work or school to get a meal or a snack and what are the options? How many vending machines are around you at work and what do they supply? What type of food is served at meetings and other gatherings? Also, how is food stationed in your living and work space? Try reaching for the closest food and what do you end up grabbing?
2. When making decisions, such as where to live, work, attend school or socialize, consider the food environment.
How often does the food environment factor into your decision-making about where to situate your key activities? When choosing where to live or work, you may think about how far you may have to commute, what is safety of the neighborhood, whether the workplace or school is prestigious, who your neighbors, co-workers, or classmates will be, how many Dallas Cowboy fans may be around you, or what is the reputation of the local school systems? But how often do you think about the potential food sources around you?
3. Talk to others about your food environment.
When's the last time you talked about your food environment with your family, friends, school mates, and coworkers? Discussion can lead to awareness and change (numbers 4 and 5).
4. Try to change your food environment.
You may not be able to readily move where you live, work, or attend school. But you can change where you move such as how you commute. A different path may bring you closer to better food. Also, you should be able to change where you and your friends socialize (unless you have absolutely no say about what your social group does, then you may have other issues). Why is it necessary to hang out in the dive bar that considers ketchup a vegetable or Life Savers a fruit?
5. Try to make your food environment change.
You are not necessarily stuck with your food environment. Lobby your workplace, school, neighborhood, or friends to more closely examine the food that's being offered. Ironically, some of the unhealthiest food that I have encountered has been at hospital cafeterias, frequented by health care workers who should be keenly aware of nutrition.
Remember, you are what you eat and you essentially eat your food environment. Take a closer look around. What you find may be surprising.