What’s Different About the Healthiest City in America?

by | Updated: November 2nd, 2017 | Read time: 4 minutes

In Naples, Florida, healthy eating goes far beyond simply skipping the full-of-fat potato chips and sugar-laden soft drinks. As one of the best cities to live in America, Naples sets the standard high.

According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, the Naples area boasts the highest level of healthy eating among 189 U.S. metro areas surveyed in 2015-16. In the Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island area, 75.3 percent of adults reported having eaten healthy the entire previous day, barely outdoing Barnstable Town, MA, at 75.1 percent.

Hand in hand with that finding, the Gallup-Sharecare index has ranked the Naples area as the best metro area for overall well-being for two years in a row. This ranking takes into account physical, financial, social, community and purpose-in-life factors, and Naples scores well in each of those five categories.

ALT= Two Chairs & Umbrella Sit on the Sandy Beach of the Healthiest City in America – What is It? | Vitacost.com/blog

“We know that when people have higher levels of well-being, they are more likely to eat healthy, be active, and surround themselves with people who support their efforts to achieve and sustain good health,” says Deb Logan, executive director of the Blue Zones Project of Southwest Florida, a community wellness initiative.

So, are residents of the Naples area imbibing some sort of magic potion? Why are they so happy and healthy? Well, their focus on quality nutrition certainly helps. 

The large population of retired baby boomers may be at the root of the penchant for healthy eating. As the Naples Herald explains, when boomers retire to the area, they bring with them dietary needs such as low-sodium, low-cholesterol, gluten-free and sugar-free diets.

“Organic growers and fresh produce stands are making it easier for restaurants to accommodate these diets,” according to the Naples Herald.

The main driver of the region’s healthy eating movement is the NCH Healthcare System, which sponsors the Blue Zones Project. The project collaborates with employers, schools, homeowners associations, faith-based organizations, restaurants, grocery stores and policy leaders to help local residents make healthier choices.

For instance, Logan says her organization works with schools, businesses, government offices, parks and others to:

Meanwhile, restaurants earn Blue Zones recognition when they put plant-based dishes on their menus, and grocery stores receive kudos for setting up checkout lanes where shoppers are tempted by fresh fruits, nuts and bottled water rather than soda and candy, Logan says. In addition, grocers are persuaded to sell “grab and go” plant-based dishes and to rearrange cereal aisles, so the healthiest products are at a child’s eye level.

Beyond that, Blue Zones promotes food drives that focus on donations of healthy products rather than cast-off items from kitchen cabinets, according to Logan; and it asks vendors at farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits (previously known as food stamps) for purchases of produce and other healthy foods.

Also, Logan notes, the region is blessed with fresh produce grown in the farming community of Immokalee, which is a major supplier of produce throughout the country. The community also boasts an abundance of farmers markets, making the fresh produce even more accessible.

For its part, the NCH Healthcare System, whose network includes more than 700 physicians and dozens of medical facilities, rotates a regularly scheduled farmers market among three locations. The NCH farmers market has spawned formation of small groups whose members have learned to cook healthier meals and have leaned on each other for weight-loss support.

NCH has gone even further, though.

In 2016, the healthcare system banned sugar-sweetened beverages from its cafeterias and vending machines. That led to a $7,000-a-month drop in soda sales. Put another way: That eliminated about 500 pounds of sugar each month from people’s diets. Also in the cafeterias, NCH has reduced entrée portions and yanked unhealthy foods from salad bars.

Logan describes Blue Zones as a communitywide effort.

“It is a ‘we’ project,” she says. “If we all do a little bit to encourage healthy behaviors, we can make a great impact now and for generations to come.”

Logan adds: “It’s not a quick fix or a fad, but rather a grassroots initiative which positively transforms the environment in which we eat, play, work and live.”

Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, says the Naples area has latched onto the critical role played by holistic well-being, with a focus on the physical, financial, social, community and purpose-of-life elements identified by Witters and his colleagues.

“It’s always a smart idea for communities to implement programs to encourage good eating habits, from mobile farmers markets to certifying restaurants and groceries to getting rid of the deep-fat fryer in the schools,” Witters says.

“But the biggest thing that Naples has figured out,” he adds, “is that oftentimes the keys to good well-being in one element can be found in other elements. This is what it means to be holistic, and it is a common feature of all [of Gallup-Sharecare’s] highest well-being places.”

If you’d like to investigate what other communities are doing to be smarter about how we fuel our bodies, here’s the Gallup-Sharecare list of the top 10 metro areas for healthy eating:

  1. Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Florida, 75.3 percent
  2. Barnstable Town, Massachusetts, 75.1 percent
  3. Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California, 74.2 percent
  4. Salinas, California, 72.9 percent
  5. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas, 72.4 percent
  6. Santa Rosa, California, 72.3 percent
  7. Hilton Head Island-Bluffton-Beaufort, South Carolina, 72 percent
  8. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, California, 72 percent
  9. Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Arizona, 71 percent
  10. El Paso, Texas, 70.9 percent