Ending bad food habits

Before Simone French was one of the nation's foremost researchers on eating habits -- long before her studies warned about fast-food marketing and Coke machines in schools -- she was a teen who snacked after school on Twinkies and dined with her mom at Burger King.

Which is to say she understands the cravings and time crunches and cost concerns that make people choose unhealthy foods even when they know, deep down, they shouldn't.

"Right now," she said in an interview this week, "the easy choice is the unhealthy choice."

French, 46, is part of a powerhouse team at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health that won a $7 million federal grant this month to change the habits of hundreds of families. The project is part of an ongoing university research program that seeks to motivate better health and eating through studies of family dinners, school lunches and food ads.

The university's new project is one of the first times that researchers will wrap multiple, proven solutions around families all at once, including health advisers, classes on eating and exercise, and vouchers for healthy food that the researchers will make sure is stocked in their neighborhood stores.

"If this doesn't work," French said, "I don't know what will."

Raised with two siblings by a single mom, French sympathizes with parents. Families with two working parents struggle to find time to make dinner, she notes. Those in poorer neighborhoods might lack safe parks for exercise or affordable produce in local stores.

Nonetheless, she said, "Parents really are the home environment managers. They decide when [families] watch TV or how much McDonald's they eat or when they're going to get the frosted Lucky Charms."

In addition to the time and money pressures they face, today's parents were raised on the novelty of TV dinners and didn't gain their parents' cooking skills, she said. So many parents she meets in her work are struggling to instill good habits in their children while continuing their own bad ones.

"They want their kids to eat well, but they don't want to stop" drinking soda or eating potato chips, she said. "It doesn't work because you have to be a role model, and you have to decide what kind of food to bring into the house."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that 34 percent of American adults are obese, up sharply over the past decade. An additional 34 percent are overweight.

French believes public health research and other institutions are starting to chip away at that trend by motivating insurers, employers, schools and governments to enact good health policies.

The University of Minnesota's Project Eat, under the direction of Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, continues to publish influential survey results showing, for example, that kids eat better when they have family dinners, are involved in food preparation and don't watch so much TV.

Critics have already suggested that the latest grant is a waste and that obese people need to toughen up and control their eating.

But French said that kind of cynicism ignores the personal and social challenges that have made 70 percent of Americans overweight.

"It's not willpower," she said. "Seventy percent of the population isn't weak-willed and lazy."

Despite her zeal, French understands everyday realities. Despite a healthy eating policy at the School of Public Health, French said meetings still feature doughnuts or snacks, because leaders worry that nobody will show up otherwise.

"Why do you need doughnuts at every meeting?" she asked. "You don't."