Most people likely would assume that the focus of nutrition education has changed radically in the last century, shifting from an emphasis on liberating people from the deadly grip of malnutrition in the early 20th century to helping the overweight among us break a pervasive and potentially deadly addiction to cheap, abundant food in the 21st century.
Actually, this isn’t the case, according to one Alabama Extension nutrition and health specialist, who says that the hallmarks of malnutrition are as visible today among the morbidly obese as they were among chronically emaciated a century ago.
The fundamental problem of both stem from the same underlying cause: malnutrition.
Obesity a Form of Malnutrition
“If you’re obese, you’re dealing with a form of malnutrition,” says Dr. Onikia Brown, a registered dietitian, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist, and Auburn University assistant professor of nutrition. “While you may be the polar opposite of someone who is anorexic, you’re still eating the wrong things.
“Obesity is malnutrition in the sense that it reflects poor nutrition.”
Brown and her eight-member team of grassroots Extension nutrition and health educators are sponsoring “Eat Healthy, Be Active” workshops throughout Alabama to address the poor eating habits and physical inactivity that underlie obesity.
Extension hopes to conduct these workshops in all 67 counties by the end of 2013.
Alabama's Dubious Distinction
Despite some progress in recent years, Alabamians are still plagued with one of the nation’s highest obesity rates. Obesity is closely linked with chronic, even life-threatening conditions such as Type-2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
“We’re improving — we’re now fourth, though we used to be ranked second and, even at one point, first, in the nation in obesity rates,” says Helen Herndon-Jones (pictured right, conducting a workshop at Alabama Extenion's Lee County Office), one of eight regional Extension agents throughout the state assisting with this effort.
Much remains to be done, she says, citing a recent survey showing that Dallas and Greene counties are among the five counties in the nation with the highest rates of obesity.
Herndon-Jones and other Extension educators stress that there is no quick fix for obesity, only a series of incremental steps to healthier eating and more active lifestyle habits that must be reinforced over time through changed behavior.
A Step-by-Step Path to Healthier Living
As they see it, this emphasis on incremental steps is one of the program’s greatest strengths.
“We try to take them through the small steps — things they can do, not just for a few weeks or a few months but for the rest of their lives,” says Herndon-Jones.
Brown says another goal of the program is to help people break the nutritionally destructive patterns of eating that have contributed to spiking obesity rates.
“That’s not to say that you should never have a donut or cookie or piece of cake,” she says. “Nutritionally destructive behavior occurs when you’re eating a donut with every meal or consuming an entire bag of chips at one sitting instead of consuming only a handful.”
Six Different Topics
The workshops focus on six different topics that help participants identify and correct potentially destructive behaviors. Each session is designed around a lesson plan, learning objectives, talking points, hands-on activities, videos, and handouts.
The first session identifies foods that are not only healthy but tasty. The second session focuses on how to prepare and choose quick meals and snacks that are also healthy, while the third deals with how to eat healthy on a budget. The fourth session offers tips for losing weight and keeping it off, while the fifth session acquaints participants with ways to adopt healthy eating as an integral part of one’s lifestyle.
The final session explores the value of physical activity as an integral to healthy living.
Practical, Hands-on Approaches
Extension nutrition educators say they value the training for its practical, hands-on approach.
“I really think this program brings some fresh ideas to the table,” says Valerie Conner, a regional Extension nutrition and health agent conducting the programs throughout parts of central and south Alabama.
“We offer practical suggestions about cutting down on all the things that contribute to obesity — fats, sugar and sodium. Instead of just talking, we actually demonstrate things.”
“For example, considering that a 12-ounce can of cola contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, we show how drinking a can of cola a day amounts to consuming 30 pounds of sugar in a year’s time,” Conner says.
“I had one of the participants measure this in one of the sessions, and it turned out to be an eye opener for many.”
Healthier Cooking Alternatives
Brown says the training also stresses alternatives to cooking practices that contribute to obesity and obesity-related conditions.
“We’re telling our participants that canned foods can be part of a healthy diet, so long as they are strained and rinsed of all of their juices, which tend to be high in sodium and/or sugar,” she says, stressing that the added sodium and sugar are known to contribute to hypertension and diabetes.
Brown also values the training for its emphasis on developing a practical exercise strategy.
“Fitness doesn’t have to involve a gym membership — it can be as simple as budgeting 20 minutes a day to walk up and down your basement stairs.”
“The program offers some safe and effective but nonetheless effective ways to get adequate levels of exercise on a daily basis.”
For more information about Eat Healthy, Stay Active training in your area, contact your county Extension office.