Overcoming Barriers to Healthy Eating

three teenagers stand with baskets of fresh produce

Eating a healthy, balanced diet helps people feel better mentally and physically, though it’s not always easy. Many people face barriers to healthy eating, including not enough time, cost, a lack of understanding combined with conflicting information around nutrition, and taste preferences. 

In places like Baltimore, with significant socioeconomic disparities and food deserts, diet has serious consequences for health and well-being. The Nova Institute for Health developed several model programs to address these barriers and empower community members with knowledge and tools to promote healthful habits.

In Five Times a Feast, a free six-to-eight-week cooking program, we addressed the most commonly cited barrier to healthy eating: a lack of time. This program taught community members how to plan meals ahead of time, cook in bulk, and freeze items for future use so they can make healthy meals for their family. Freezing food is a great time saver, and frozen items stay eligible eight times longer in the refrigerator without losing nutritional value. Out of time? Just grab a meal pack from the freezer, thaw in the refrigerator, and heat it up. Also, cooking at home can be much less expensive than eating out, which brings us to our second most common barrier to healthy eating: the cost of healthy food.

In Culinary Health and Medicine, the first-of-its-kind core curriculum program equipping medical students with a more complete perspective on food and health, we shared tips for eating healthy in a budget-friendly way. Students learned that buying frozen produce, shopping strategically, being realistic about consumption, and using leftovers are good practices for both wallet and health. 

a group of multicultural people participate in a cooking class

When it comes to cost, buying frozen items is often cheaper and more convenient for meal planning. Before going to the grocery store, we advised students to take stock of what they already have. We also shared tips such as: Only plan to purchase what you know you’re going to use and stick to that list; shop the outer edges of the store first, where you’ll find whole foods like fruits and vegetables; when in the center aisles, check products in the bottom row—the most expensive products are often placed at eye level. 

Leftovers are great when on a budget and keep you from eating out on days when you don’t have time to cook. You can also reuse leftovers in different styles like stews, stir-fries, salads, and burritos to make sure you are still enjoying food. Which brings us to our next barrier: a lack of understanding and conflicting information around nutrition.

Our Mission Thrive Summer program, a five-week, hands-on experience that included farming and cooking, taught children the difference between whole foods (made from the earth) and processed foods (manufactured in a factory), and the related advantages of each. We advised children that, while we can’t always eat whole foods, when buying packaged foods, try to ensure you recognize most of the ingredients. 

Lastly, the final barrier: taste—eating healthy should not come at the expense of our taste buds! Not only are spices and herbs filled with health properties, they are also an excellent way to make dishes tasty and enjoyable. Our program Spice MyPlate taught high school students to use spices and herbs to prepare and enjoy nutritious and more wholesome versions of their favorite dishes for example—using cinnamon and vanilla extract to make dishes sweeter; cumin and turmeric are great for veggies; and for soups, stews, sauces, and marinades, basil and oregano accentuate the taste factor. 

Through all of our programs, we encourage participants to experiment with different recipes and flavors to find what they like. The best way to make healthy eating a lifestyle is to make sure you enjoy what you’re eating!

We are working to make replicable curricula for all of our Mission Thrive programs, so they can be used across the country. To learn more about these programs, contact Project Coordinator Gabriela Piedrahita at gabriela@novainstituteforhealth.org

Developing safety, persistence, trust

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Acquiring Resources

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
    • “I think I kept trying to convince him I was crazy. And he kept saying, ‘No, you’re not crazy.’ […] You wouldn’t necessarily say a Vietnam Vet was crazy. You’d say they are responding like you’d expect to extraordinary circumstances.”
    • “I’m not the only one who have [sic] this problem. A lots, millions of people, you know. […] They don’t have nothing to do with that. I guess I have to live.”
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
    “You need a lot of energy and a lot of work … it takes a lot of work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s not like a magic wand.” This patient understood that they had to actively participate in the healing process.
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

Helping Relationships

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) “When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. Healing, in this sense, does not mean cured—none of the study participants were cured of their ailments—”but all developed a sense of integrity and wholeness despite ongoing pain or other symptoms.” In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” When we begin to heal, we find increased capacity for hope, renewed motivation to help others, and are more able to accept ourselves as we are.

Suffering

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. “The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”