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TEDMED #GreatChallenges: Shopping for Health

Packed Refrigerator Shelves

“Organic is too expensive.”
“My grocery store doesn’t have healthy options.”
“I don’t have time to prepare healthy meals for my family.”
“Vegan, gluten-free, I don’t even know what’s ‘healthy’ anymore!”

Sound familiar?

Whether you’re shopping at the local farmers’ market or a national chain, it can be confusing to know what’s healthy and how to shop smart. In this Google hangout, the TEDMED Great Challenges Program discusses shopping for health and shares tips for choosing healthy options.

The TEDMED Great Challenges Program, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, lists 20 medical and non-medical issues that affect Americans through social, economic and environmental factors. The program’s mission is not to create a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather to start an interactive dialogue between medical and scientific professionals and the community to inform and educate the public about critical health care issues. The obesity crisis and reducing childhood obesity are two of the topics covered, and the Shopping for Health panelists discuss how what’s in your grocery cart has implications on both.

The hangout was moderated by Sally Squires, who holds a graduate degree in nutrition and is the current food nutrition and wellness leader at Weber Shandwick. She also blogs on the topic at Everyday Health.

TEDMED Great Challenges: Shopping for Health

The Great Challenges of Health and Medicine are complex, persistent problems that have medical and non-medical causes, impact millions of lives, and affect the well-being of all of America — beginning with patients, and extending to families and citizens everywhere. These knotty problems are not susceptible to simple cures, magic bullets or “one-size-fits-all” solutions because they stem from broad, interlocking social, economic and psychological sources as well as from medical or scientific triggers. What’s more, each challenge creates multiple, overlapping effects that may cut across all sectors of society. The mission of TEDMED’s Great Challenges Program is not to solve these complex problems. Instead, we propose to provide America and the world with an unbiased and broadly inclusive view of these challenges, incorporating thoughtful, multidisciplinary perspectives.

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The Panelists

Melissa Halas-Liang is a registered dietitian and founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc. Her focus is on educating families through grocery store field trips and myth-busting long-held beliefs.

Sue Borra is the senior vice president of communications and strategic planning for the Food Market Institute, and she also served as president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She discusses how consumers should use their grocery stores to create healthy, convenient meals and the role of registered dietitians employed by grocery stores.

Steve Hill is chief of staff for Oklahoma City Mayor, Mick Cornett. When Oklahoma City was deemed the “Fattest City in America,” Mayor Cornett put the entire city on a diet. Hill talks about the mayor’s decision to eliminate fried foods from schools and the partnerships he built with local fast food restaurants to create healthier options. The buy-in from community businesses helped the city lose more than one million pounds.

Key Insights

The session kicked off with some interesting facts on grocery shopping today:

  • American consumers visit grocery stores on average 1.6 times per week.
  • Most grocery store chains carry 38,000 items.
  • Consumers look for four main attributes: low prices, high-quality produce, high-quality meats and a great selection of products.

One fact remained clear — shopping for health is as critical a routine as brushing and flossing. Not only are consumers expected to change their entire way of eating, but they are also expected to interpret all of the conflicting messages from the food industry.

How to decide what works best for you? The panelists had a variety of suggestions on what consumers can do right now.

Shopping for Health Trends and Tech

  • More chains are promoting an all-in-one “health and wellness” destination with registered dietitians on staff, educational field trips to the store and new food samples.
  • Apps like Fooducate and My Fitness Pal utilize a helpful scanning feature for instant nutritional information and tracking.
  • “Facts Up Front” is a new food labeling campaign aimed at easy, instant recognition of nutritional stats.
  • Though many parents might cringe at the thought of bringing their children, grocery shopping as a family is a great opportunity to teach good eating habits early. Supermarkets are stocking kid-sized carts and creating kid clubs as part of their pint-sized initiatives.

Successful Shopping in the Store

  • Prevent impulse buying by tackling the grocery store with a list and meals already in mind.
  • Think colors when choosing fruits and vegetables — aim for an entire rainbow.
  • Rethink convenience — a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad is much better than the drive-thru.
  • Read the labels. Do you know how much sugar is in your favorite snacks?
  • Find your farmers’ markets.
  • Choose easy recipes for food success, and only buy what’s needed.
  • Introduce new foods to children alongside foods they already know.

The biggest takeaway was that there is no one solution for everyone. Vegans, vegetarians, meat lovers — none of these food lifestyles were promoted as the healthiest. Rather, the suggestion to adopt a “flexitarian” appetite, and include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less processed foods, was the overall message. Whether consumers craved a steak or a soy burger, food awareness is the best companion when shopping for health.



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MPH@GW, the online Master of Public Health at The George Washington University, is proud to support the Great Challenges Program at TEDMED, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Through weekly dialogues with TEDMED’s intellectually diverse community, we move toward a more meaningful understanding of the Great Challenges of Health and Medicine. Click here to learn more about the Great Challenges Program. To share your ideas, join in the discussion at #GreatChallenges.

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