How can we encourage Americans to live healthier?

That’s a question we often hear and everyone seems to have their own preferred solution: Politicians want taxes and regulations to restrict access to products they deem unhealthy; consumer groups hector businesses to remove certain products from their shelves; and the media bombard people—particularly women—with endless warnings about what to avoid, as well as the latest fads for losing weight and living healthier.

Yet a new report released last week by the polling company,inc./WomanTrend, commissioned by the Independent Women’s Forum, finds that women recognize a fact often overlooked in this conversation:  People decide for themselves whether or not to make healthy choices. Government can’t force people to live healthy, and a lack of choice or information isn’t problem.  In fact, too much alarmism and conflicting advice about potential dangers may be getting in the way of healthier living.

Women are overwhelmingly concerned, and even guilty, about their lifestyles.  The survey found that two-thirds of women sometimes feel guilty about not living better. Not surprisingly, women with children at home are more likely to report being guilt-ridden (73 percent feel guilty), especially single mothers (81 percent felt guilty).

Yet when asked why they aren’t living healthier, women aren’t pointing fingers at others.  Seventy-six percent of women say the reason they eat unhealthy food is because of their personal preferences, rather than a lack of access.  Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) agree with the statement:  “There are plenty of healthy options easily available to consumers. People eat unhealthy things because they want to, not because they have no choice.” Regardless of income levels or ethnic backgrounds, strong majorities agree with this statement.

Women don’t believe government should intervene to cajole people toward healthier choices.  When asked, “do you favor or oppose the government regulating the consumption habits of Americans, such as limiting how much salt, sugar, or fatty foods consumers can buy at a store or restaurant?,” by a 2-to-1 margin, women oppose such nanny-state policies.

Eighty percent agree that “the best way to reduce obesity in this country is by providing customers with information and encouraging self-control, moderate exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices,” compared to just 16 percent who think “the best way to reduce obesity in this country is to ban, regulate, and tax certain foods and beverages.”

Women see government action as futile or worse:  Just three in ten believe government intervention works, compared to 63 percent who think it makes no difference or is counter-productive.  When asked specifically about the headline-making large soda ban in New York City, six-in-ten women oppose it(though notably, younger women were far more likely to support the ban).

Women are hungry for information about health and safety—three-quarters of women surveyed report scrutinizing health and safety warnings—but they have a tough time finding sources they trust.  Eighty-seven percent agree with the statement, “you can always find somebody to say something isn’t healthy or safe.” Just 11 percent disagree with this cynical statement.  Eighty-three percent believe “the media are more interested in ratings and selling papers than in responsibly informing the public.”  This distrust of public information leaves women struggling to make sense of what they are hearing:  Eight-in-ten agree “sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate concern over a food product or household item and scary headlines that attract attention.”

This should set off alarm bells for public officials and those in the media who truly care about women’s health and well-being.  There are times, after all, when warnings are truly needed and helpful new health information emerges.  Yet the onslaught of warnings and over-zealous coverage of every minor risk means that people may tune out information they really need.

This skepticism explains why, in spite of their profound interest in health and safety information, most women haven’t altered their daily habits because of media or interest group warnings. While discounting much of what they hear, women instead turn to and trust information from the medical community and their own friends and families.

Let’s hope the advice they hear from these sources is one that encourages a balanced approach to health and safety issues.  After all, while health and safety fads come and go, and alarmist warnings one day are often reversed in the days that follow, moderation and common sense is the most surefire foundation to healthy living.