Evidence that Nutrition Assistance Programs Can Help Improve the Food Environment

What good are food stamps doing to nourish the hungry if participants spend it all on junk food?

This is a common critique of nutrition assistance programs, and for a good reason. That being said, many hunger advocates counter that today’s hungry often live in communities where fresh, healthy foods aren’t available, and that tightening the nutrition criteria for these assistance programs will leave participants with nowhere to turn. After all, a little bit of junk food is better than no food at all. However, a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior demonstrates that when nutrition assistance programs update their offerings to reflect the latest in nutrition research, the foodscape improves to benefit everyone.

FRUIT SELECTION

Background from the study:

“Based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, the US Department of Agriculture changed the WIC Program’s supplemental food packages, addressing nutritional concerns of the panel by offering low-fat milks and whole grains, and including cash vouchers for fruits and vegetables. Before the change, WIC offered juice, milk, cereals, eggs, beans, and other foods. However, the milk was whole milk, cereals were not whole grain products, there was no option to include whole grain bread or rice, and there were no fruits and vegetables. This set of changes, the first in a generation, went into effect in most states, including Louisiana, in October, 2009.”

So what happened after these changes were introduced?

For this study, researchers visited small stores in New Orleans right when the change was introduced, and then again a year later. In 2009, only 3.7% of stores participating in the WIC program carried whole wheat bread or brown rice, but a year later, 70.4% offered whole wheat bread and 92.6% offered brown rice!

These drastic improvements aren’t just a sign of the times, but can largely be attributed to the changes in the WIC program. That’s because at non-WIC participating small stores in New Orleans in 2010, whole wheat bread was only offered at a meager 1.5% of stores, and brown rice was only offered in 12.1% of stores. Additionally, the study found that the number of varieties of fresh fruit significantly increased (from 3 to 4) at WIC stores, but not at the non-WIC stores, and average shelf space of all vegetables increased in WIC stores by about 1.2 meters.

VEGETABLE SHELF SPACE

These improvements in healthy food selection benefit all shoppers, not just those in the WIC program. Could similar improvements be made to other nutrition assistance programs? Weigh in!

Note: Despite these hopeful findings, food choices in depressed communities are in dire shape. For more on this topic, see my blog post on the link between hunger and obesity. Also, to learn more about the WIC program, see here.

– Kelly

The Truth About Butter

butter

Image via BOJ

Leave it to science journalists to convince the public that butter and bacon are heart healthy foods. From the Wall Street Journal’s, Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease, to Mark Bittman’s Butter is Back in the New York Times, several articles have been quick to sing the praises of artery-clogging saturated fat.

Their ammunition is a recent meta-analysis in the March issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. This study is a review of previous studies that compares heart disease rates to fat intake. The authors found that when saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates and added sugars, heart disease risk increases despite the low level of saturated fat. What this study failed to report is that when saturated fat is replaced with monounsaturated fat in the form of olive oil, nuts, or avocados, heart disease risk actually decreases.

Nowhere did the authors suggest that saturated fats are beneficial for health. So while butter may be dubbed the lesser of two evils (when compared to added sugars), the goal of healthful eating should be to find foods that are proven to actually nourish you and prevent disease. The gold standard of nutrition should not be to pick foods simply because they are “not as bad as” others. Additionally, the best way to assess nutrition and health is to look at the overall diet, rather than one nutrient at a time.

Was eating less butter and bacon the downfall of American health and nutrition? Definitely not. The real culprit, as the study points out, is the prevalence of sugar-laden processed foods. If you want to eat for health, choose a dietary pattern with decades of research behind it, such as the Mediterranean diet, that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, legumes, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil.

For more on the saturated fat debate, see these articles:

For some of my favorite heart-healthy recipes, see here:

Quinoa Salad with Dried Cranberries and Marcona Almonds

– Kelly