A billboard caught my attention recently on my drive to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. It read simply, "Unlearn Unhealthy."
It's a message from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta as part of its ongoing Strong 4 Life campaign to provide families with solutions to improve their health.
I wondered what "unhealthy" means in this context. Too many soft drinks instead of water? Too many cookies instead of carrots? Too much TV couch time instead of outdoor playtime?
Yup, you've got it. Strong 4 Life aims to turn those bad habits around.
I was on my way to Boston to attend the annual gathering of nutrition researchers at the 2013 Experimental Biology, or EB, meeting, so I made it my goal to see what they thought of the effectiveness of the negative phrasing of "unlearn unhealthy."
A leading authority on obesity, Dr. Jim Hill, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, says, "People need to know what to do. You can't teach by communicating the negative." Hill is co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, which keeps track of folks who've lost weight and kept it off for more than five years. The healthy habits they share include walking and eating breakfast every day, checking body weight at least once a week and watching less than 10 hours of TV per week.
Young nutrition investigators presenting studies at the EB meeting are focused on providing actionable advice, too.
Laura O'Connor, a senior studying nutrition at Purdue University, says, "I feel the first approach would be to teach what's healthy. It's hard for people to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy." To test positive messages to inspire healthy behavior change, O'Connor and co-investigators conducted a study using text messages sent to male and female college students.
"This population is always on the phone and texting." Seven weeks of seven different nutrition messages taken from the USDA's MyPlate dietary guidance were sent as texts. "We didn't want to annoy them, so we only sent them twice a week," O'Connor says.
But apparently the texts were being read and resonated. The study found significant increase in fruit consumption and a trend toward increased vegetable consumption in the group receiving the nutrition tip texts.
Much of the research presented by members of the American Society for Nutrition at EB this year focused on the benefits of foods and nutrients to eat more of, not avoid.
Nutrition scientists are learning more about fiber's role in weight control. Evidence on the disease prevention power of plant nutrients such as antioxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols and carotenoids is so strong many believe they need their own official nutrient category like vitamins and minerals.
What is there to figure out next? How much cranberry juice to drink or how many blueberries to gobble to garner the healthy effects? What they do know is that consuming more fruits, vegetables, healthy oils in fish and fiber in whole grains keeps rising to the top of the "to-do" list.
That's a healthy start.