For years, “Table for two, non-smoking” has been part of the regular vernacular for restaurant goers. Many choose to separate themselves from secondary cigarette smoke, since it (and primary smoke) is widely proven to cause lung cancer and other health problems. The dangers are so great that many states, including mine, have banned smoking altogether in indoor public places like restaurants.

It’s interesting that we’ve taken a stand against this self-inflicted danger to health, but don’t with other runners up for the health hazards award. Imagine if we took a similar stance against obesity, for example, which poses a great risk to health. “Table for two, nutritious only, please.”

The February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine may shock you with a new study from Columbia University and The City College of New York. The number of smokers has declined 18.5%, while obesity incidence rose 85% in recent years. Along with that, quality-adjusted life years lost among smokers was slightly less than those who are obese (0.0438 versus 0.0464, respectively). Boil it all down, and the numbers indicate obesity has a greater impact on reducing one’s quality of life than smoking—a known killer. These findings were based on interviews with more than 3.5 million Americans over five years (ending in 2008).

Obesity is a burden that negatively affects so many families, and yet there are few measures in place that dissuade those who want to lose weight from choosing unhealthy options. Quite the opposite, it is practically encouraged with advertisements from top money-making food companies. The deck is stacked against fitness with—all right, I’ll say it—deceit. That pack of cigarettes may come with a Surgeon General’s warning that they are hazardous to health; the deluxe bacon cheeseburger  does not. The situation is almost mind-bogglingly to the contrary. Sugary cereals are noted as smart choices on their labels; a “healthy,” weight-lowering diet includes sub-sandwiches with processed meats (or the latest twist, tacos from one of the most notoriously low-quality fast food joints); canned ravioli is a great substitute for eating vegetables; and a mix of sugar and water qualifies as a serving of fruit. Before I stop myself, I’ll add that a popular children’s television network was slammed a few months ago by the Center for Science in the Public Interest because 80% of its aired food commercials were for products of “poor nutritional quality.”

Clearly, those who are diligently trying to get healthy foods on their families’ plates are responsible for their own choices. But, they also are getting intentionally mixed signals about what is and isn’t a healthy option.

Wouldn’t it be great if those who didn’t want to be tempted by unhealthy foods could walk into a place and choose a menu that’s only healthy (no strings attached)? Retailers, here’s where you come in. You are the clearinghouse, the safe-haven from barely nutritious foods. Reach out to those looking to change their lives with better food choices, but may be too self-conscious to ask. With 68% of adults and 32% of kids now overweight (new numbers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention), it’s a large demographic to approach. But, if we can get the momentum turning in the other direction, millions of Americans struggling with weight issues will be truly grateful. Consider it your own stern message—STORE MANAGER‘S WARNING: Healthy eating may cause a slimmer waste line, an extra bounce in your step, and improvements in overall health. WF


Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner

Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2010