By: Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

I am sitting in a mall food court with several friends when one remarks on another shoppers weight, which was beyond impressive. The mid 30's object of this attention was obese, used a walker, and huffed and puffed alongside a child carrying a tray. My tablemate said it look like enough food to feed a family of four for a day.

All 3 of my companions piled on observations. The irony of the moment was that all 3 of my companions were themselves overweight - but when I asked them if they were, they all said no.

On average, citizens of the United States now eat 570 calories more every day than we did in the 1970'si. Our population now consists of roughly 1 in 3 obese, 1 in 3 overweight, and 1 in 3 healthy weightii. As I mentioned in previous columns, in large part due to our diet, life expectancy in many counties in the United States is actually falling. As a nation we now rank 50th for life expectancy in the worldiii.

declininglifeexpectancy

One challenge for health educators working on this problem is that as a nation we have now developed a mindset that to be heavy or obese is "normal" .iv If a heavy person looks around, they see many others just like themselves, and conclude that they fit the "norm". Based on these observations, they think don't have a weight problem - makes it harder to bring about behavior change.

When we reached the place where people draw comfort from thinking themselves as "normal" when "normal" is a condition guaranteed to lead to shorter life and high healthcare bills, our country is in big trouble. Lends new meaning to the phrase "the greatest nation on earth".

In addition to eating too many calories, another less visible health risk is now increasing - less than one in two adults eat the recommended portions of fruits and vegetables (the naturally colorful food)v. Among teen aged boys, less than 1 in one hundred follow the recommended guidelines for fruits and veggies!vi

Science is discovering that for some diseases food can be used as medicine. Turns out that fruits and veggies that are naturally high in color contain ingredients that help fight disease.

Compounds in many of these brightly colored fruits that have natural anti-inflammatory properties. They help the body deal with threats that cause swelling in joints, our digestive tract and even our brains! Many of the illnesses that are growing in prevalence today involve inflammation to our bodies - but colorful food fights that.

Evidence suggests that that the good stuff found in the foods tends to be found more in wild crops than in farm raised.vii Take Blueberries - commercial plants are bred to produce big berries that ripen quickly, and store well for shipping. They get lots of fertilizer and pesticides, and are coddled. We can call these the “lazy teenager” fruit.

Wild blueberries, on the other hand, are in a "survival of the fittest" mode...they grow slower, sucking up every particle of nutritional value they can to stay alive. Because of these different growing conditions, the wild ones end up having more of the powerful rare stuff - slowly taken in as the roots wind and stretch for the last bit of nourishment. Navy Seals. Would you rather have a lazy teenager or a Navy Seal fighting for you to fend off disease? 

You can be kept up to date on research in this area by joining the mailing list of the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, North Carolina at http://plantsforhumanhealth.ncsu.edu/subscribe-rss/

Knowing about this healthy, disease fighting food is not enough, however – people, particularly those who would most benefit from the nutrients, need to actually eat them. 

Now that this picture is getting clearer, it is up to those of us not seated at the " kids table" to do our job. 

One new tool to help parents is an I-phone app game that preschoolers can use simply by tilting the phone. This helps characters run and catch food falling from the sky. If the game character catches donuts, the character gets a tummy ache....but catch an apple, and joy breaks out. You can learn about it by typing in "Go Go Mongo Healthy Eating App"viii.

We are not powerless in the face of threats to our nation. 'Stepping to the plate', working together in the home and at a local level, we can fix much of what ails our country.

i http://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_DietAndFitness/american-diet-now-snacking-expanding-countrys-waistline/story?id=13948594#.T7UFFsWrGs0