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Fries over veggies: How failure of the American diet is perceived

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

The NY Times and Huffington Post are running a story by Kim Severson, Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries, lamenting how hard it is to get people to eat healthy.

The thing that struck me about this article, as its title suggests, is how nutrition in America is often pitched top-down.  A strategy is bound to fail when it consists simply of government experts making recommendations about nutrition, as one of the folks interviewed notes:

“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.

…The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables.

The article explores the usual things claimed to be preventing people from eating better—convenience and cost:

“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said.

In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.

“Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said.

Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t, in her words, “a pain.”

“An apple you can just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?”

“It’s just like any other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook them.”

The solution is presented as a problem of overcoming access to good food:

But clear guidance probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available.

I’m a fan of nutritional literacy, as I am with environmental literacy, but only as one of several approaches in a portfolio of strategies for improving the quality of life and the environment.  Nutritionists and climate change educators should team up in this regard because they face the same challenge—winning hearts and minds (or, in this case, stomachs) and changing behavior.

The problem is that a top-down nutritional literacy approach, by itself, is woefully inadequate (more information, alone, simply won’t accomplish this), and access to good food is only part of the challenge.

If you want engagement, then nutrition needs to be turned into a bottom-up venture.  It’s not simply a matter of food pyramids and access to good food.  People need to experience growing and cooking their own food.  They need to be engaged with how good it can be, how it can be grown cheaply, and how plant-based diets are easy to prepare.

There are several ways to begin accomplishing this:

1. Start early.  Make gardening and cooking a part of the elementary school experience.  All kids should take an active role in planting, tending, and harvesting food.  Then they should take part in preparing the foods they have grown in ways that are appealing to eat. The power of this should not be underestimated.  The only thing I remember from kindergarten is making bread and butter from scratch.

2. Diffuse this knowledge to home or community gardens.  When kids are taught how to prepare healthy, tasty food, they can bring what they learn home, starting home gardens and helping out with making dinner by showing parents what they learned in school (maybe accompanied by some kind of creative incentive from parents to do this).  People can see for themselves that is is often less expensive to grow healthy food, especially if communities team up and share their bounties, than it is to buy junk food that makes up much of their diet.

3.  Involve the community in a contest to generate a list of the most popular recipes for different fruits and vegetables.  Perhaps engage the help of local chefs for fun.  I have a 100% whole fruit smoothie recipe that most kids would mistake for dessert.

4. Disperse these recipes widely and incorporate them into school education programs and lunches, as Alice Waters is accomplishing in California.

5. Not only should farmers markets accept SNAP (food stamps), there should be classes/demos to show people how to prepare foods.  Also, having samples and recipes that are tasty and convenient would be helpful.  People should be convinced, by seeing with their own eyes and taste buds, that they can do this and that it’s worth their time.

And that’s part of the larger problem:  overcoming the psychological barrier that fresh food prep is time consuming:

“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it.”

Although I see the point here, I think it’s a poor reason for not eating healthy.  People schedule time around education, sleeping, exercising, soccer practice, vacation, being with friends, spirituality, and visits to the doctor/dentist because these things are considered necessary to living well.  Is preparing healthy food not a similarly meaningful part of our lives?  Is it really impossible for families to schedule 30-45 minutes preparing meals?  Should leisure time or other competing interests really be that high an opportunity cost?

Perhaps that’s one lesson:  So long as Americans treat preparing and enjoying healthy meals as a tradeoff with leisure time or other activities, American diets will suffer.  No amount of top-down government nutrition guidelines will overcome that.

Related news:  Bill Clinton now eats vegan

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Photo credit:  hellochris

3 Responses to “Fries over veggies: How failure of the American diet is perceived”

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  1. [...] Henry has a nice article in the Atlantic that follows up on my post earlier this week about failure of the American diet and why people just don’t seem to eat enough healthy [...]

  2. [...] and the Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum) that follows up on my earlier posts last week (here and here) about turning nutrition into a bottom-up venture that engages and attracts kids.  This [...]

  3. [...] we often assume with environmental or nutritional issues, maybe simply helping to better educate people is all that’s needed? Probably not, as [...]

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