Friday, 12 January 2018

Kale and running shoes

Posted by Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse, Dietitian and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University

"January is our busiest month" said Hayley in the bustling fruit and vegetable shop in the small North Yorkshire market town where I live. This was on the first Saturday of January. She said their sales of kale had rocketed as people started juicing, eating better and generally trying to improve their diet. All this following the excesses of Christmas.

On Sunday morning, when I was out running (or trying to run on the icy pavements!), I was surprised at the number of runners pounding the streets in our small town. Then I remembered, it's the first weekend in January. Maybe, like me they have a shiny new gadget that they are somewhat obsessed with (how many steps have I done today?). There must be an exponential increase in the number of runners and kale consumers.

What is it about 'New Year, New You' that never fails to deliver and how long will these new behaviours be sustained? Why is it that our print and broadcast media don't grow tired of feeding us (excuse the pun) the same January story of …”you've eaten and drunk to excess in December now it's time to abstain from alcohol (Dry January) and go on an excessive unsustainable dietary regime”... Or the most recent health “craze” of ‘raw water’.

Our social media feeds are filled with so called 'nutrition and fitness experts'. The Instagram squares show us before and after pictures of success stories, quick fixes, rapid weight loss etc. etc... Not so many squares saying - look at your diets, your lifestyle, make sustainable changes as these are more likely to succeed in the long term (well apart from one of my professional organisations The British Dietetic Association).

What about the evidence? Does it advocate New Year's resolutions? Are we programmed to wait for the longer term goals or do we need to have instant results? A study published in 2016 suggests that while individuals may exercise for the long term goal of improved health, it is actually the immediate reward that predicts their persistence in that behaviour.

Ultimately these resolutions are about an individual's behaviour change. Much of our public health policy focuses on individuals changing their behaviours. Anyone who has tried to do this knows how difficult it is. Yet, we (professionals, the media, society) continue to focus on the individual who is generally living in an environment where kale isn't an everyday option and running shoes only go on at the weekend – or sit looking pristine in the cupboard.

What we need is a change in the system or what is called a 'whole systems approach' to health and lifestyle problems. The most obvious lifestyle related problem is that of obesity. There is a chronic problem of energy imbalance affecting our whole population young, middle-aged and old. We are encouraged to eat less and exercise more but really, the environment doesn't support those changes (for the majority of the population). Will our policy makers have any New Year's resolutions to focus less on the individual and more on the system in which we make our behaviours? With changes such as a sugar levy coming into play, we are seeing food manufacturers reformulate or change product size. But we also hear reports of people stockpiling sugary drinks that are about to be reformulated. Is this the start of a shift away from the individual and to systems thinking? I very much hope so.

Kale and running shoes are not the answer to addressing a health and lifestyle crisis but long term supported and sustainable changes are.

Image: 'Marinated Kale Salad-2' (23204695074_92c53db643_z) by 'jules' via, copyright © 2015:

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