The Flex Diet – It Bends, So You Don't Break.

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Many of us were intrigued by Walmart’s recent announcement to make some improvements in the nutritional quality of the products sold in its stores. Between eliminating trans fats from its shelves by 2015 and reducing sodium by 25% over the next few years, Walmart may ultimately have a greater impact on the public’s health than many of us who are supposedly doing this for a living. Is this surprising?

Walmart’s move highlights the power of large corporations in making sweeping changes — for better in this particular case — but also makes us reflect on the fact that healthier choices tend to be made when healthier options are presented to us. It seems that while education is essential, it may not be sufficient. I was reminded of this recently by a study published in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine, which found that adding nutritional information (fat, sodium, calories) to the menu at a fast food chain did not significantly change the overall purchasing behavior of consumers. While I’m sure that some individuals do respond to this point-of-purchase education, most people continue to choose what tastes best to them.

Armed with these sobering statistics, we might consider a two-pronged approach. Educate consumers, but also consider ways to make healthier behaviors more convenient. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as a fitness center in your office building — it can be as subtle as positioning certain items differently in a grocery store, adding some additional lighting to make walking on the street safer, or just eating at the table or in the lunchroom rather than in front of the television or while sitting at your desk.

I previously blogged about a soda tax as a method to create obstacles to engaging in less healthy behaviors, and acknowledged the controversy when such a measure is levied by the government. But a corporation has the ability to create obstacles or reinforce behaviors too, just as long as it positively impacts its bottom line.