Healthy Food Environment
How Eating Well Becomes the Easy Choice
“Toxic.” It’s a word often used to describe the food environment in the United States and, increasingly, in many parts of the world. Because even though the food itself is usually safe to consume, the world in which most consumers live makes choosing healthy food very hard and choosing unhealthy food very easy. It’s truly a toxic environment that eats away at healthy lifestyles and promotes obesity.
What makes up the food environment is vast and varied, ranging from broad federal issues—like agricultural and communication policy—to very local issues—like worksite policies and permits for farmers’ markets. To effectively combat obesity, this broad web of influence that developed over many years must begin to be disentangled, and there are numerous opportunities to do so.
Some avenues to effect change: Agriculture policy can focus on increased planting and buying of fresh fruits and vegetables. Revenue policy can focus on increasing taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidizing the cost of healthy choices. Zoning regulations can help bring supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods and limit fast-food restaurants in areas where there are already too many. And communication policy can restrict advertising to youth about unhealthy foods, or curb stealth marketing to youth through junk food product placements on prime-time television.
The food environment often lurks silently in the background—going largely unnoticed—but it plays a major role in the food choices people make, even for the most independent-minded consumer. Whether it’s small victories on the local level or large shifts on the national level, any positive changes to the food environment can begin to shift momentum: We move away from a world that so easily promotes unhealthy eating, and toward a world where healthy eating is the default choice.
This section of the website summarizes broad recommendations for improving the food environment, based on a review of expert guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, and other major governmental, professional, and public health advocacy organizations. Some of the recommendations are aimed at national level change, while others can be implemented at the local level. For more detailed guidance on these recommendations and ideas for putting them into practice, explore the source list on each page, as well as the links to useful toolkits and other resources. Keep in mind that these recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in the food environment.
It’s one of the first steps toward bettering the food environment: making healthy foods and drinks more convenient and affordable, especially in places that serve the public.
Curbing junk food marketing to children is an urgently needed strategy for obesity prevention, as is giving consumers more information about what’s really in their food.
Taxing sugary drinks could encourage people to cut back, while repositioning priorities on agricultural subsidies could make healthy foods cheaper.
Food insecurity and obesity are increasingly seen as related problems, and food assistance programs have a role to play in obesity prevention.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.