Unhealthy Lifestyles, How they Arose, and How They Can Be Reversed

I open the doors to the front entrance and step inside.  As I approach the receptionist and request a visitor’s pass, I can’t help but notice the change in the air.  Outside, it had been about 70 degrees and slightly humid, too humid for an October afternoon.  Inside, the air chills my skin.  Not only does it seem to be about 65 degrees, but the quality is different…it’s clean…sterile.  It should be. It’s what I would expect in a hospital, Physician’s Care Surgical Hospital in Limerick, to be exact.

Visitor’s pass: check.

Next on my list: the kitchen.  “Straight through those doors, down to the end of the hall, and to the right,” as directed by the receptionist.  I swing open the double doors to the kitchen, and the atmosphere inside clashes with the atmosphere of the lobby and hallways.  I find nurses and kitchen staff bustling about, preparing food, putting food on trays, constantly coming and going.  The kitchen is a revolving door for women, and a few men, dressed in moss colored scrubs and smiles.

I make my way through the aroma of gravy and what were most likely green beans, maybe broccoli, with my mouth now salivating.  I finally arrive at a little conference room aside of the kitchen, and gently slide into a chair to start preparing for Kelly.

Kelly Morrison is the surgical hospital’s registered dietician.  At the hospital, Kelly specializes in food service operations, sanitation requirements, contract bids, and menu development.   In 1989, she graduated from the University of Connecticut on Nutritional Sciences.  Along with being a licensed dietitian-nutritionist, Kelly also taught introduction to nutrition at the Community College of Philadelphia, was a nutrition manager for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, was a clinical dietitian for Sodexo-Marriott Management Services, and was a food service supervisor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.  Based on all of Kelly’s certifications and experience, she is more than qualified to answer some of the daunting questions that I have revolving around food.  More importantly, I want the opinions of a professional in the food industry.  I want to know her opinion on the effects of today’s food on today’s society, how it came to be this way, and how it can be stopped.                        

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Healthy Habits Early On

So, what were your eating habits as a child?” I ask, determined to figure out if she was raised to eat healthy foods, or if being in the food industry and being educated on food makes her want to eat healthy.  More importantly, my goal is to find out the correlation between food habits while growing up, versus present food habits and opinions on the food industry.

No one knew what organic was when I was a child.  But interestingly enough, you could buy a lot of produce from stands when I was a kid, and it actually was organic…” she starts to say.

But, it didn’t cross your mind…” I start to finish.

No one knew…there was no word for that. The word hadn’t come into use.  When I was a child, it was in the 60s.  My mom had a huge vegetable garden in the backyard, and she didn’t spray anything on that, so we were eating a lot of produce out of there.  So, when I was a kid, my mom actually went to college to teach home economics.  She didn’t end up teaching though, because after school she had kids, and in the 60s, once you had kids…” Kelly trails off

You stayed home and took care of the family.” I finished.

Right, but she knew about healthy eating.  We ate pretty healthy growing up…which we hated.”

Kelly breaks out into laughter, and I join her.

After taking a moment to recompose ourselves, I ask her, “So obviously back then, there wasn’t a McDonald’s half a mile from another one, was there?”

No, we had one McDonald’s…like, in the next town…and it was one of the first ones.  We used to go there like, two times a year as a treat.  It was a big treat.  And we’d get a little hamburger, milk, and the small fry.  And my mom would get the fish sandwich.  And that was it. Two times a year.  No soda…no big mac…”

So, nothing super-sized?” I ask her, with a smirk on my face, starting to giggle.

She joins me in laughter.

Right, and you know what else?  It was expensive to take four kids out.  Even to McDonald’s.  So the whole interesting thing about it is, although we hated it as kids, I think my description of how I like to eat now, came from growing up like that.  I don’t even like all of that junk, and my brothers are the same way.  We turned out to be healthy eaters because of the way my mom fed us, even though we hated it at the time.”

Everything in Moderation

What are your personal eating habits like now?” I slowly ask, making sure I don’t make her feel uncomfortable by asking this.

“Sure, I eat….just about anything that I like.  I don’t restrict anything out of my diet thinking it’s bad for me.  I like a lot of things.  Fortunately, a lot of those things happen to be good for me, like fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals, and things like that.  But, I also like sausage and cookies…”

She starts to break into laughter as she counts all of these treats on each finger.

“…and cheese.  And so, I try to eat…I guess my philosophy for my diet is everything in moderation.  You know, I won’t eat a whole bag of cookies, but I’ll eat two cookies when I want them.  As far as generalities, I don’t use any artificial sweeteners, because I hate them.  It’s a personal preference.  I’d rather enjoy real sugar in my morning coffee, that contains 45 calories, than to drink a really crappy cup of coffee, and still take in calories.  The past few years, now that I can afford it, I buy a lot of organic food.  I also have more of a budget for food than I used to.  We buy a lot of our meats from the farmers market.  We buy a lot of produce there, and I still buy produce at the grocery store.  But there are things that I will make sure to buy organic.  There is a list of things that are pretty impossible to get all of the pesticides off of, for instance, grapes, as opposed to a banana.  Bananas have thick skin, so by the time you take that off, nothing has really gotten inside. But if you buy grapes or berries…” Kelly trails off.  I can see her mind working on how she wants to word the rest of her phrase.

I take over, “…then you’re eating the whole thing.  So whatever is on the outside is going into you, too.”

Exactly.” She agrees.

Do you think that’s kind of what society has to do, in order to change their eating habits overall?  Just set aside more of a budget for that kind of food, instead of spending it elsewhere?”  I ask.

Well, I think that in the United States, it’s hard for a family themselves to try to afford more food that way if they only have a certain budget…I mean, yeah.  That is one way to look at it.  What I think that one of the issues in the United States is that our food has been artificially cheap, for like, 60 years.  The way the government subsidizes farmers…the meat in this country is artificially cheap.  When you think about it, a piece of meat shouldn’t cost $2, but it does!  People are so used to paying low prices for certain things, it’s very hard.  But what we’re paying low prices for in the United States is pretty crappy food at the end of the day.  So…that’s probably not what you asked me…but…”

No, what you said was great!  You’ve led us in a great direction.” I reassure her.

Kelly thinks for a moment, making sure I actually want her to continue.

So, I talked about the organic thing, but another thing that we really try to do is buy as much local stuff as we can. We really want to support local businesses. And we don’t want to just do it with food, either.” She starts to say.

Suddenly, we hear an intercom page, “Kelly, please come to the front.  Kelly, to the front.”

Don’t worry about that.” Kelly waves her hand at me, like the page wasn’t important.

If you need to go check on something, feel free to…” I begin to say.

“Nah, no one even knows I’m here.  That was probably Kelly, the nurse.  But anyway, it’s really easy to do around here with all of the farms and stands.  Pennsylvania is a huge food producer.”

Now, earlier we kinda touched on a question that I have about why eating organic is important to you.  You had mentioned about supporting local businesses, and…” I trail off, wanting her to finish my thought.

Yes, I did mention that.  Another reason why it’s important to me, that I didn’t touch on earlier, is just the way organic food is grown, or raised.  It’s better for our environment.  As far as animals go, it’s a much better life for animals.  And especially if you have kids, the amount of pesticides used on conventional crops in the United States, it’s ridiculous.  And, you know, it’s all building up and it’s going into our water, and our bodies.”

Kelly has led me in the perfect direction for the next topic I have been itching to get into with her.

Finding a Balance Between Comfort and Healthy

In attempt to transition into the topic of food habits within today’s society, I decide to ask a question about one of Kelly’s duties as a dietary consultant: menu development.  It’s clear to me that Kelly has grown up with the mentality of eating healthy foods and still maintains that healthy lifestyle today.  Since fast food restaurants are everywhere, and factory farming has taken over the meat industry, is it too late for our society as a whole to develop healthy habits?   Did society become this way because of being raised and growing up around the availability of unhealthy choices? How did we get this way, and can it be stopped?  How are places, like Physician’s Care Surgical Hospital contributing to society’s habits?

When it comes to the menus, are there certain requirements that have to be fulfilled?” I ask.

For most of those programs…this place doesn’t have those kind of requirements cause it’s a different type of program…but, most of those programs, there are some federal requirements, and they’re kind of…generalized…and then as you get down to each state, they might add more requirements or just flesh them out some more so it’s easier to follow.  So, they have maybe five pages…the state takes those two things and turns it into five pages…” she trails off.

I pick up with, “So they break it down…”

Kelly starts in again, “Yeah, they break it down and that’s what has to be followed.”

And now I know that for this particular hospital, there are menus for every meal.  Do you have to oversee those menus, or do you make them yourself? Tell me a little bit more about the menu make up process.” I inquire.

The thing with the hospital is they don’t really have set requirements that are so specific…” Kelly begins.

So they don’t really break it down by protein, carbs, etc.?” I ask, surprised by her response.

Exactly.  So instead, you would offer a range of healthy choices on the menu. Not everything has to be healthy, necessarily.  Like, we have potato chips on here and stuff.  But, you want to make sure that if someone picks, let’s say, an entrée and a side dish, that it’s going to be something that’s giving…like, a third of the normal amount of protein that someone needs per day, for instance.”

So, would you say that you’re kind of guiding them along the right tracks of being healthy?”

I mean, yeah.  You want to make sure that you offer things that you hope they are eating on a daily basis.  It’s really all about what have the patients enjoyed, what they have ordered a lot, ideas that they’ve had.  We think a lot about comfort food here, because every person who is here has just had surgery, you know, so that might be different from another place.  But if you look here…”

Kelly grabs a menu from the table and points to the entrée for tonight’s dinner.

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There’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, so you know, they are comforting types of foods.  And then, you know, it comes with asparagus, so you’ve got a healthy meal.  There’s protein, two vegetable side dishes…you know.”

Do you find that there’s a struggle when trying to find that balance between what is healthy, yet comforting, but ultimately satisfying to them?” I ask.  It seems like a lot of factors come into play when thinking about and preparing meals for patients, more than what I had first assumed.

I think that if I was trying to make this menu like, super healthy, that wouldn’t be exactly what patients would want.  I’ve done a lot of work in food service, myself, and I’m pretty realistic about people’s diets and what they might eat, and what they might not want to eat, and I think we end up with a nice balance.  If you’re trying to help somebody eat healthier, or lose weight or something like that, that you’ve got to fit it into what their lifestyle is.  You have to work with them, and not say ‘this is what you should do,’ because that realistically would never work.”

So, would you say you find that it’s a better strategy, to kind of wean your way into eating healthy?  Instead of saying, ‘Okay, starting tomorrow I’m going to eat a salad, and vegetables, and…’”

“Absolutely.” Kelly agrees with no doubt in her mind, nodding her head.

“…and you think they’re more likely to stick to it, than reverting back to their old ways?” I continue to ask.

Yes.” Kelly says in a matter-of-fact tone.  Then she stops to think and goes on, “Hopefully.  But you do need to make small changes.  You’re changing your lifestyle.”

Food is Everywhere.

So overall, how do you feel about the eating habits of today’s society?” I ask, diving right in.

“The food that’s not so good for you is really cheap. And that’s a function of how the food has been subsidized by the government.  And they didn’t do it intentionally; it’s just how it turned out.  And the other interesting thing, which it didn’t used to be this way…every single place you go now, you can buy food.  Everywhere!  No matter what you’re doing.  You go to buy gas, they have a mini mart.  Wherever you go, you can buy a snack.” Kelly rants.

I go to speak, but pause for a moment, really tossing around what she has just told me.

That is so weird to think about.  When you really think about it and look around, it’s really true. I never thought about it until now.” I tell her, thinking about the shipment of food that we had just gotten in to sell at my workplace, Staples.

Right, so instead of eating just breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’re eating all day.  You have food in your car, everywhere you go you can buy a bag of chips.  Everyone says there’s an obesity epidemic in the United States, which, there really is, but I think its…food is around you constantly.”

So, since it’s always there, it’s enticing.   You feel like you need it.” I state.

Exactly.  And you’ve got the food that’s the cheapest is often the one that’s loaded with calories, and sodium, and fat.  And some things that I’ve learned from working for a hunger organization…volunteer work…is that, a lot of people in the younger generations, they don’t even know how to cook anymore.  So even if they wanted to eat healthy and cook healthy for their families, they don’t know what to do.”

Kelly pauses, thinks for a few seconds, and then continues.

I think the government should be subsidizing produce…not subsidizing corn growers.”  She starts to chuckle.  “That’s how you end up with all of this high fructose corn syrup.  They’ve been, uh, subsidizing corn growers for years and years and years, and there’s so much corn that now, someone figured out what to do with it, which is make high fructose corn syrup, and put it in every product known to man.”  She continues to laugh.  “That’s my rant!”  She exclaims through her laughter.

No, that’s great!” I reassure her.

Oh, and here’s a fact.  With the new dietary guidelines, My Plate, which replaces the pyramid, I mean, you’re really supposed to eat like nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  If everyone in the United States decided tomorrow that they were gonna follow My Plate, there wouldn’t be enough fruits and vegetables in our country to feed them.  We don’t even produce enough, or sell enough to meet those guidelines for the public. Isn’t that weird?”

I’m dumbfounded.  It had never crossed my mind that we are so used to eating unhealthy food, that there might not even be enough of the healthy food if everyone decided they wanted to change their lifestyle.

That is like…wow…” is all I can think to say, my surprise is now mixed with disgust.

“I know!  It’s really weird.  I just think it’s fascinating.” Kelly says with amusement.

“Oh it definitely is. I never would’ve thought about that.”  I tell her.

We both pause for a moment, sitting in comfortable silence.  I finally get all of my thoughts together, and decide that it’s time for my last topic…the one I can’t wait to get her opinion on.

Meat Shouldn’t Be Cheap

“What do you think about factory farming?  What do you think we could do to put an end to it, as a society?” I ask her, waiting on pins and needles to hear her reaction.

Kelly starts to speak, pauses, thinks more about her wording, and then starts again.

I think that…factory farming is…horrendous.  It’s disgusting!  It’s horrible for the animals, but also for the way that…because it’s such bad conditions, what they have to do to keep those animals going, is again, not good for the animals, but not good for the soil, the environment, or for us. You know, they give them prophylactic antibiotics because they are all crushed in together, so that they don’t get sick.  They give them hormones so that they grow faster… because they’re in a hurry to fatten them up to sell them.  All of that’s ending up in our water systems, its ending up in people… so, that’s pretty much how I feel.” She tells me, her tone slightly annoyed, and a look of disgust on her face.

She continues.

“Now, there are a lot of people who say without growing meat that way, there’s no way we could feed everyone in the United States.  And I can’t say for sure, that we could.  But, I think first of all, Americans eat too much protein.  A normal sized piece of steak, or chicken, is you know, 4 ounces…”

She forms a circle using her index fingers and thumbs.

“…but we eat something that’s like, 10 ounces.  So, it might take a whole change to be able to undo the factory farm system.  If people did decide to buy less meat, and started to buy, you know, organic and from farmers, maybe at the beginning there wouldn’t be enough for everybody.  Just like apparently there’s not enough produce if everybody ate the way the government recommended.  But maybe eventually, it would undo the system.  You know, it never used to be this way.  I mean, we have a bigger population, but I truly believe that there’s some way to produce food that’s not going to ruin the earth.  The way that we grow protein right now in the United States…it’s just…really bad.  As countries get richer, the population starts to eat more meat.  And then you start to see the issues that we have here in the United States, where people have heart disease, and diabetes, and obesity.  It’s something called the nutrition transition, and it’s happening now in China.  Even if the people in the United States decided, ‘Well, we’re really against factory farms, so we’re going to make a commitment to eat less meat, and we’re going to try to buy our meat from a farmer,’ well, they keep those factory farms going, because they’re selling to China now..” Kelly continues to rant.

“So, it’s not even a country wide issue, it’s a world…” I chime in.

It’s a worldwide issue.  It’s fascinating stuff.  So I, um, I think the way to start is consumer choice, and, that people who are interested in this and think that something should be done to make a difference.  When the farm bill comes up for reauthorization, they should work on changing the farm bill so that, it’s not offering the subsidies that it’s been offering for years.  Like, the other thing they do with all of that corn is feed it to those animals…”

“Right, when they’re supposed to be eating grass…” I add.

Exactly.  So the meat’s cheap, because the corn is subsidized. Meat should not be cheap like that.  It’s just, wrong, it just, doesn’t make sense.  They need to start subsidizing people who grow fruits and vegetables.  So, people need to do things politically, and with their pocketbook.  I guess that’s my answer.”  She finishes, looking pleased and content with her answer.

I am just as pleased and content.[3]


[1] Physician’s Care Surgical Hospital, Limerick, PA. Personal photograph by author. 2013.

[2] Menu, Limerick, PA. Personal photograph by author. 2013.

[3] Morrison, Kelly. “Unhealthy Lifestyles, How They Arose, and How They Can Be Reversed.” Personal interview. 14 Oct. 2013.

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