For several years, most governments have been announcing policies exhorting people to eat a healthy diet (around the iconic images of fruits and vegetables (F&V)) and to undertake more physical activity in order to help prevent a range of diseases. Eat less unhealthy foods and move more. Almost everyone agrees that it makes sense; no one is actually advocating eating fewer F&V or to move less. However, the percentage of people in most societies who ‘claim’ to meet prescribed targets is depressingly low (the true figure may be even lower than ‘claimed’). Why is this?

A number of studies are now being conducted to reveal why people – both adults and children – are unable to meet the quite reasonable and not especially demanding targets being set. Barriers exist both in the individual and in the environment. For young children their parents apparently present significant barriers (the corollary is that the parents could therefore be a positive influence). But parents have perceptions of the barriers they themselves confront, one of which is the perceived pressure of time. In a modern world people blame a lack of time for being unable to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Can anything be done about these barriers?

One problem is there are abundant alternatives to a healthy diet and living a physically active life. These alternatives are not marketed as ‘unhealthy practices’ but they are incorporated into cultural forces that promote the consumption of easy to find, cheap to buy, energy dense products and enjoyable sedentary activities (often sitting down watching someone else do something). All of these are legitimised in the commercial market of a consumer society. It may be perceived as being unfair but it is not against the law. In this environment, does the identification of barriers exhaust all possibilities for the failure of people to meet targets? Could there be an underlying ‘unwillingness’? Is it possible that people actually enjoy the taste and easy mouthfeel of ‘unhealthy’ foods or that they dislike the effort of physical activity? Self denial is not a popular lifestyle choice. The preservation of ‘freedom of choice’ is a goal of most democratic societies. However, to change unhealthy lifestyles may require a greater degree of coercion (limitation of choice) than currently exists.

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