It’s not your fault.

That’s what Dr. Terry Huang wants you to know if you’re obese. “It’s not your fault because obesity is a result of so many different factors: genetic factors, environmental factors, the way our society is constructed by policy, and all of those things contribute to all of us, by default, eating more and exercising less.” Dr. Huang is the chairman and professor of health promotion, social and behavioral health for UNMC’s College of Public Health, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Dr. Huang wants you to know something else. “It’s not your fault, first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do about it.”

He’s a man who is poised to change the way we think about the space around us when it comes to the way we eat. A childhood obesity expert, he was recently recognized for an innovative school cafeteria design he created alongside a team of other renowned experts in public health, architecture and design for a school in Virginia.

“The Virginia school study is very unique in the sense that it’s really the first time when public health researchers came together with architects and designers to think about how a school can be designed for both energy efficiency and to promote healthy eating and active living,” says Dr. Huang.

Recent changes to USDA requirements for meals provided by schools are an attempt to help address the widespread childhood obesity issue, but sometimes the food you present to a kid isn’t the whole solution. How much will the kid eat? What items will the kid eat and which items will the kid toss in the trash? On a larger scale, you have to ask what type of experience the kid is having while eating the food and how this will translate to his or her future food choices into adulthood.

This is where the school design comes into play. Dr. Huang and his colleagues took a multi-faceted approach to creating a space where students will not only receive nutritious food, but they will also learn to appreciate their food in a way that is quickly becoming scarce in today’s plop-it-in-the-microwave-and-serve meal mentality.

“We want kids to see where their food is coming from,” says Dr. Huang. They created a space in the school design for an outdoor garden. “Whatever they’re putting into their mouths, hopefully they’ll gain an appreciation of where it’s coming from because they see it right outside the window. They see it being prepared in the kitchen.” The design calls for visual and physical adjacencies from the prep area into the dining area that will allow students to get a better glance into how their food is prepared.

Dr. Huang’s team also looked at the seating used within the dining area and asked the school district for approval to buy special furniture from Germany that is specifically designed to promote micromovements. The furniture is supposed to increase non-exercise activity. This means that kids who

fidget and move around a lot are actually doing their bodies a favor by expending energy instead of sitting still for long periods of time.

Kids are frequently assaulted by opportunities to make bad food choices, and don’t think that marketers don’t know what they’re doing. “When you go to the supermarkets you’ll find candy on the lower level by the checkout,” says Dr. Huang. “The reason it’s there is because it’s easier to attract kids. You’ll see chips in the middle of the shelves because marketers have figured out that if kids whine, parents will just agree to buy.”

Similar principles can be used to help kids make the right choices about the food they eat in a school cafeteria. “Studies have shown that if you just change the fruit display by using a more attractive bowl it will increase the likelihood that people will pick up the fruit,” explains Dr. Huang. “If you put that bowl by the checkout as opposed to having chips at the checkout, that will increase the likelihood for people to buy the fruit even more. We know from behavioral economic studies that how you present the food and where you present the food makes a huge difference in how people make a purchase and their eating behavior. Very simple changes can go a very long way.”

It’s important for kids to enjoy their food, says Dr. Huang. “We want children to actually look forward to siting down and eating in the school cafeteria. If you can associate pleasure with the better-for-you foods, I think that will go a long way in changing your future expectation or desire for healthier options.”

So what about you? As an adult, you still may not understand the fundamentals behind a healthy diet and may feel helpless when it comes to your weight. While it is true that the odds may be stacked against you in fighting obesity, small changes and some accountability can do wonders.

“We make hundreds of eating-related decisions a day, most of which do not even rise to the level of consciousness,” says Dr. Huang. “The bottom line is that people are just eating too much. People have very little concept of how much food is equal to how many calories.”

His solution is fairly simple. First, limit your liquid calorie intake. “There are some studies emerging showing that liquid calories don’t provide the same kind of satiety as solid foods do. Our habit of drinking sugared beverages really helps add up calories very fast.” He suggests cutting one can of soda a day in the beginning. “That’s over 100 calories a day that you’re cutting out, and that will make a huge difference.”

Moving more is the next step. “You can decide to go for a walk for 20 minutes a day. You can decide to park your car a little bit further from your workplace so you get an extra 10 minute walk every day. There are small steps people can take the key is to do something that you can be consistent with.”

Don’t go overboard. If you starve yourself, you’re doing more harm than good. If you set unrealistic goals, you’re going to get discouraged and give up. Or, as Dr. Huang advises, “It’s better to do it slowly and consistently.”

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