I recently took a class called “The Biological Effects of Aging” and discovered much more than the fact that humans get old. I was most surprised with regard to the statistics surrounding potentially terminal disorders such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer – 70% of these diseases are preventable through lifestyle and environmental changes (Digiovanna, 2000). While as a society, we are encouraged to lead an active and healthy lifestyle, the methods of delivery for this message are not in line with social psychological research, e.g., informational appeal and fear appeal (PSWC, 2020). Looking over the history of nutrition in the United States, food pyramids have significantly changed every 10 to 15 years beginning in 1916, having gone from 7 food groups down to 4. Education, accessibility, and economics have been major contributors to these changes, however, as our knowledge has increased, our dissemination of this information has not changed.
Health and nutrition have been presented as “recommendations”, suggesting 30 minutes of exercise a day and a “balanced diet”. Meanwhile, substances such as drugs, alcohol, and smoking have seen campaigns touting the dangers and life-threating consequences. Back in the 1970s, movies and television often displayed smoking as cool and befitting a particular image, though that was before we understood the connections between smoking and lung cancer. Now, we hardly see smoking in movies aside from “shady” or “undesirable” characters, which are subtly used to emphasize the negativity of smoking. We know that sugar is dangerous, as it not only leads to tooth decay, but also diabetes and auto-immune disorders. Yet, we don’t see the dangers of sugar being taught in schools or displayed in movies or television in the same fashion. Likewise, current studies have stated that a lack of exercise is worse for the body than smoking and is, in fact, one of the major killers in the modern era (Booth, Robert, Laye, 2012).
While diet fads, gyms, and personal trainers are taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge surrounding these issues, social psychologists should be collaborating to find ways to inform the public in a sensible and cohesive manner. Similar to the way genetic scientists worked together for the Human Genome Project, biopsychosocial experts should be collaborating on campaigns aimed at educating the public on ways to prevent disease through health and nutritional measures. These measures could involve programs targeted towards eating for disease prevention, e.g., cruciferous vegetables support liver function, berries produce antioxidants, whole grains support digestive health, etc.
If health and fitness became a cultural norm, rather than a cultural ideal, we could all encourage each other to become healthier. In order for this to happen, we need to educate the public on the real-life implications that our choices and behaviors have on our health. If we are to implement such changes, we need to do so in a fundamental way by informing the wider population that certain food and lifestyle choices are seriously detrimental to our health, as opposed to the current way in which we categorize “unhealthy” foods or behaviors. Compliance remains the biggest issue surrounding health and fitness, but until we can be honest in our assessment and use factual, transparent information in our education, we will continue to believe it is something beyond our control.
A Brief History of USDA Food Guides. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/brief-history-usda-food-guides
Booth, F. W., Roberts, C. K., & Laye, M. J. (2012, April 1). Lack of Exercise Is a Major Cause of Chronic Diseases. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cphy.c110025
DiGiovanna, A. G. (2000). Human aging: biological perspectives. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2020). PSYCH 424 Lesson 5: Health and Clinical / Counseling. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2040175/modules/items/28379748
The Human Genome Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project