Unhealthy foods abound despite rising health awareness

In the 1970s, dinnertime was sacred. It was an opportunity for family members to gather around the dinner table, talk about their days, and enjoy home-cooked meals together. Presently, however, busy schedules often drive the Millennial generation to forgo traditional mealtimes and eat on-the-go. Many Santa Monica College students, often busy with work and school, fall under this category.

“I forget to eat breakfast,” says Suzzie Weslien, a business management student at SMC. “Back home in Sweden, I always ate breakfast, but here I don’t have a real kitchen, so I usually buy my meals. I have been really unhealthy, but I do prefer to cook because it’s both cheaper and healthier.”

Millennials live in a world where high-calorie, high-fat foods are not only relatively cheap, but also more readily accessible. Fast food restaurants that always appear open seem to abound on every street. For previous generations, fast food was not as widespread as it is today, and portion sizes have also increased considerably.

“Most of what I know about healthy eating I learned from my mom; the rest is just common sense,” says Weslien. “I do also eat that unhealthy burger and pizza, because right now I don’t have that much money left, and unfortunately, the unhealthy food is cheaper.”

From 1997 to 2006, the processed food industry has been consistently expanding, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Industry Report. Farm-fresh foods are often less accessible than foods found in bags, boxes and cans at the grocery store.

“Understanding Nutrition,” a nutrition textbook used at SMC, states that processed foods have lost valuable nutrients to sugar, fat, and salt, which are linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes when consumed in excess.

“Here in the United States, most of the fast food you buy is pretty unhealthy compared to what I am used to,” says Weslien.

Though health awareness is often promoted in the media, obesity is more common than ever.

According to “Understanding Nutrition,” in 1993, the obesity rate was less than 15 percent for most of the U.S. By 2008, it grew to between 25 and 30 percent for over half the states in the country. A report released this year by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development states that in 2011, the obesity rate was 33.8 percent.

A sign of the obesity epidemic can also be seen on television, where shows like NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” A&E’s “Heavy,” and the CW’s “Shedding for the Wedding” fill primetime spots. For previous generations, these spots were filled by traditional family shows like “Little House on the Prairie,” “The Waltons,” and “The Love Boat.”

The variety of diets and diet pills has increased along with obesity. From Atkins to Jenny Craig, to Weight Watchers to the Master Cleanse, extreme and fad diets have become common for Millennials like Weslien.

“I tried the Nutrilett diet once, and I will never try it again,” says Weslien, referring to a diet that consists of low-calorie soups and shakes as meal replacements. “I wanted to see how long I could stand it, which was about a month. I lost about eight pounds, but once I started eating regularly again I gained the weight back quickly. Now, I go for good meals and exercise.”

Despite the omnipresence of processed and fast foods, a health-conscious trend is also emerging for Millennials. Raw food, vegan and vegetarian diets have become more mainstream, and research has shown a connection between vegetables and fruits and a decreased risk of cancer.

“There is evidence that some types of vegetables and fruits in general probably protect against a number of cancers,” according to an extensive report from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

“I try to buy salads and healthy sandwiches, the only fast food that isn’t made of fat and sugar,” says Weslien.