Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Does Dietary Elitism Scare People off "Healthy" Eating?

What is "healthy" eating?

I suppose everyone has their own definitions of what's involved, and certainly there are some dietary adherents where food becomes nearly a religion, but forget about them. I'm talking about the masses, the folks who don't spend their every waking moment living and breathing a particular dietary regime. What do your average Joes and Janes who aren't inherently keyed into nutrition picture when they hear the word, "healthy" regarding food?

My guess?

Sprouts - both brussel and otherwise.

And certainly salads. And maybe weird looking (to them) plates full of grains with currants or raisins. Maybe cottage cheese.  Definitely lots of water.

Probably also they think "vegetarian" or "fancy", or "complicated".

And while "healthy" need not be any of those things, sometimes I do have to wonder whether or not part of the problem in inspiring the world to choose healthier food is that the notion that healthy's fancy is one that does in fact get regularly perpetuated by folks preaching eating healthfully.

Take for example last week's New York Times. In it readers are presented with Martha Rose Shulman's ideas for, "a week’s worth of light and simple ideas for dishes that travel well.....lunches they can take to work and eat at a desk". Her ideas? I'll present them in picture form down below, but among them they include the ingredients: Beet greens, Swiss chard, chickpeas, Lundberg Black Japonica Rice, edamame, soaked red lentils, dark sesame oil, walnut oil, pinenuts, lightly toasted cumin seeds, Aleppo pepper, fennel, nigella seeds, and peeled kohlrabi.

Really? Those are "simple"? If that's "simple" for healthy eating, I'd hate to see fancy. And I bet I'm not alone.

Could articles suggesting dishes like these are "simple" actually hinder progress towards nudging people back into their kitchens?  Do we over complicate "healthy"?

Me? I'm pretty damn happy with my oven roasted chicken sandwich on whole grain bread with an apple, but I guess the problem with that "recipe" is that it wouldn't sell newspapers, books or glossy magazines.

So if the media is our primary influence on what is and isn't healthy, and if actually simple recipes don't grab readers, who's going to help get our nation re-learning how to cook actually simple, healthy meals?

I've got nothing.  Do you have any ideas?

(all food photos taken by Andrew Scrivani)

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  1. I read that article in the Times. One thing that stands out, as I read the excerpts here, is the number of modifiers: Black Japonica rice, Aleppo peppers, nigella seeds.

    (Can you grow your own cooking-show host from those?)

    You may be on to something with your suspicion that many extremely healthy diets would not sell newspapers. Nor is either of us likely to sell an article to the Times that says a good breakfast is peanut butter on whole-grain toast, a banana, and coffee with half-and-half.

    I've managed to lose 45 pounds, and to keep it off for a year. I was a fellow-traveler on Weight Watchers (my wife belonged; I used their ideas).

    One thing I learned, as the primary cook in the family, that a large number of recipes in books like Jacques Pepin's Simple and Health Cooking needed virtually no modification to fit into the plan, into our routine, or into our shopping cart.

    Here's a go-to recipe we found in our local paper for chicken stew proven├žal. The most exotic ingredient is herbes de Provence, which my neighborhood Safeway carries three varieties of.

  2. Great post, and terrific comment above, too. There are lots of good sources for healthy and simple recipes: Weight Watchers, the whole Rodale group, etc. The real problem is the idea that healthy = complicated = "icky" and that's a little harder to solve.

    I'm going to check out that Pepin book, sounds great.

  3. I agree with you, some "healthy" ideas are way too unfamiliar for people adopt. I think it really depends on the person and where they are today. For someone who doesn't eat any vegetables at all, suggesting kale or Swiss chard as the first things to try may not be ideal-- basic salad or common vegetable with common seasonings is better. But people get bored, and some are into new and different things. I recommend people try ONE new food/item a week to add variety. But yes, all the things you listed in one week is too much! I'm surprised I didn't see seaweed there!

  4. I would assume Martha is putting recipes out there for the already enlightened. But it is just so simple to eat healthy, the less processed the better. How about a sandwich (whole grain bread, avocado, tomato, turkey bacon)? yummmmm.

  5. I find that sharing healthy foods -- with my family, at parties, for pot-luck gatherings -- helps demonstrate that the healthiest can be the most appealing, too. Often for a "dessert" at a pot-luck I'll take a plate of orange slices, or add some other fruit to it as well.

    I make surprisingly-simple salads with chopped dark lettuces and colorful chopped veggies, adding a bit of dried or fresh fruit and some seeds or chopped nuts, sometimes a few rinsed canned beans, plus lemon juice or good vinegar and minced garlic, for a tossed chop salad with beauty, sophisticated taste, and crowd appeal (plus no fatty dressing).

    My 20yo son living on his own has made beans and rice a go-to staple, which is quite an achievement for the pizza and hoagie demographic. :-)

    nutritarianrecipes.blogspot.com <--not recently updated

  6. Yoni, I agree with everything you said about healthy eating/recipes seeming too fancy or elitist...that's one of the reasons Janet and I avoid exotic ingredients and complicated recipes in Looneyspoons! Our mission is to motivate Canadians to get back into the kitchen cooking healthy meals instead of relying on takeout or food that comes from packages, boxes and bags. But we realize that most cooks will not shop at 3 different stores searching for "nigella seeds and Aleppo pepper" or spend 90 minutes making a Tuesday night meal. So, to answer your question about "who is going to help us cook simple healthy meals?: WE ARE! And we've proven that you don't need to make healthy cooking complicated, glamourous, exotic or fancy to sell books, as you mentioned above. We are the opposite of elitist :) Love reading your blog Yoni. Thank you!

  7. Great post, Yoni! I'm a bit ashamed to admit I've been a little "elitist" lately, recommending recipes with berbere spice and Mexican chocolate (both with easier-to-find substitutes!) in my January and February newsletters, respectively.

    I do agree with the comment that I'd like to believe we are putting recipes out there for the "enlightened" but I definitely think I will share this blog post with our clients and see what they think of our recipes!

  8. Thanks for all the comments folks.

    Greta - you're absolutely right. Which is why we sell and recommend your cookbooks!

  9. Yes, you have a point. Sometimes even the 5 ingredient recipes put me off. Perhaps there is a website or book out there somewhere with truly simple, easy meal/snack ideas? One of my favourite recipe sites is Whole Living
    http://www.wholeliving.com/145336/recipes I have found quite a few simple food ideas here including some of my favourite smoothie recipes. It may seem too elite for some but I go there first these days.

  10. Anonymous9:03 am

    I sometimes wonder if more emphasis could simply be placed on not eating out. Anything you make at home is going to be healthier than anything you eat out, at least, that has been my experience. I think more emphasis should be placed on packing your lunch for work (no matter what you pack), and fixing something at home for dinner. I think it would probably make a pretty big impact on health, just that one thing.

  11. The Times article is definitely out to lunch. I agree with Dave - it's the modifiers that make it over the top for me. Like the egg salad wrap in lavash with beet greens/swiss chard.....what's wrong with a nice, light egg salad in a good old whole grain wrap with spinach or lettuce or something. It's just as healthy and a LOT easier to source. To be honest, I'm adventurous and love eating healthy, but most of those recipes look like they would have that almost in-your-face-healthy grainy taste. Not a fan. I bring dinner leftovers almost every day for lunch anyway - so much easier than making something specific.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I am sorry but I received the Craig Hirota comment in my inbox and agreed wholeheartedly why has it been removed?

    1. You'll have to ask Craig. He's the one who removed it. I only delete spam postings.

    2. after I wrote it, I felt like it was not on point with Dr. Freedhoff's article. It was more like a tangent. Plus, I didn't want to muddy up his comments, I've never been a health practitioner/provider and I'm not a personal trainer anymore. I left a similar sentiment on his facebook page, I think the audience there is more 'lay' than the one here so I thought my comment was more appropriate. Here, I'm happy to lurk, I don't have the CV to add much to the discussion.

  14. I think there are levels of difficulty when it comes to cooking -- cuisine versus just plain food. I don't think the Times aims for the latter when it provides recipes. I love to cook, and I like to think I am pretty good at it -- so frankly I didn't see the recipes in a negative light. And frankly, many people who like to cook need to hear of healthier recipes, too, that nonetheless contain fancier ingredients and involve a certain level of complexity.

    The other thing your (great) post brings to mind is how, often, healthy cooking messages miss what people who love food and cooking love -- really delicious food! I saw a recipe in a healthy newsletter recently that suggested Brussels sprouts pan fried in a little canola oil with a pinch of salt made for a good side dish. Good as a healthy side dish, sure -- but lacking in richness, presentation and, frankly, interest.

    So I guess my point is, there are 2 audiences when it comes to conveying healthy cooking -- the masses, who have not been taught to cook (and to enjoy it), and people who know how to cook but need to learn that good food does not necessarily equal pounds of butter, oil, salt, etc.

  15. Anonymous12:05 pm

    We have to consider that the majority of Times readers probably love kale and swiss chard! People who don't know what those vegetables are, or don't buy them, most likely don't read the Times' Dining & Wine section. If we want to promote doable recipes, we need to make sure they can actually reach the populations whose behavior we're trying to change.

  16. AHHHH, this is my biggest pet peeve ever! I want some one to come to my local Extra Foods and IGA and show me how to eat from there. Thank you for bringing this up. Solutions, mmmm I don't know maybe bring back a version of "Hal and Joanne" quick commercial 30 seconds of hey here is an idea that is healthy but make sure it is really healthy! Maybe then I would actually watch TV again but most likely not!

  17. Anonymous1:39 pm

    Anyone seen those 'student' recipes that take ages, use weird ingredients, and are ridiculously expensive by student standards? Fresh crabmeat and pavlova, anyone? http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/sep/21/student-cooking-recipes

    I live off brown rice, lentils, carrots and variations on fish curry and spinach spag bol in college. Not out of healthfulness, necessarily, but out of a desire to have some variety on as little money and time as possible. Has to be <20 mins prep time and something which doesn't need attention as it cooks, so I can go study.

    1. I did take a look, and was a bit taken aback. The article does say for "student chefs," so maybe it's for chefs-in-training? If not, the ingredient lists on some of those are incredibly long - how many students have shallots, lemongrass stalks, and creme fraiche on hand?

      I'm also a student and I agree, it's easy to make quick, healthy meals in half an hour or less - if you know what you're doing. Sadly, few people of this generation have real cooking skills anymore. I hope that the foodie craze has at least inspired some people to learn.

  18. I think part of the problem is that people presenting "healthy" "alternatives" feel a lot of pressure to make food "interesting," in order to compete with easily available junk that is explicitly engineered to toggle all the right brain switches.

    I saw a really wonderful article recently on how to eat wildly cheaply. That pitch is also alienating for a lot of audiences, but the end result was exactly right: truly simple ingredients and meals that are hearty, sustaining, easy to source *and* afford, and genuinely easy to make and store.

  19. Hilary3:03 pm

    I never really though about things this way, I live eat and breathe food, its all I think about. And when I read the article in the times, I think to myself 'Awesome, sounds great, sign me up!"
    But its easy to forget that everyone approaches food and cooking differently. I think people SHOULD eat kale and lentils and quinoa and organic free range chicken and edammame and fennel. But that is where professionals should come in, to EASE people into a life style that works for them. I wouldn't keep giving out kale recipes to someone who told me they just couldn't stomach it. We should be here to educate and guide people into a lifestyle that is healthy, varied and attainable. So would I recommend only recipes that offer crazy ingredients that will scare people off? No, but I certainly wouldn't leave them out if they are delicious, easy and nutritious just because they have an ingredient no ones heard of.

  20. My frustration is heightened every time I read a tweet or a post by RDs, including ADA spokespeople, by seemingly well-educated, published, even, representatives of my profession. Frankly, I'm appalled by their messages like those you describe--comments like 'I ate Irish oatmeal with added ground flax without sugar--what did YOU eat for breakfast?" Makes me gag. Yes, this is the source of the perpetuation of unrealistic goals for "healthy" eating.

    Read my blog, if you haven't already (since I'm listed as a reader recommended one on yours. I suppose some have seen it). I support PB and J for lunch--along with fruit--and cookies, too, if needed, as an example. There are recipes for "healthy" vegetarian and non-veg crock pot dishes and stews, as well as recipes for Rich, saturated-fat laden Rugelach (divine!). It's that balance, I believe, that makes for for healthy eating.

    Here's a solution. I'd be happy to write a guest post for this site--say the word--and I'll address this very issue!
    Lori Lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN

    1. Anonymous12:23 pm

      I looked up Martha rose shulman and she is actually not an RD or nutrition professional, she is a cook. Here is where the line gets blurred and people get confused when the media is not asking the true 'experts' on their take on healthy.

  21. Yoni,

    I couldn't agree with you more. I find so many "healthy" diet trends terribly elitist. Not just because the ingredients are not widely available, but because they are exorbitantly expensive. Things like maca, raw cacao, coconut crystals, lucuma powder, goji berries, etc. I'm sick and tired of nutrition extremists claiming that EVERYONE should be avoiding gluten, dairy, or be eating 100% organic foods. It's just not realistic for most North Americans!

    I wonder if part of the answer isn't making nutrition a fundamental part of the school curriculum. I read a study that found that kindergarten students who were taught about nutrition were significantly more likely to be willing to eat a wider array of healthy foods than children who were not.

    I think there is also the problem of blurring the boundaries between nutrition and other food movements. The local food trend, for example, is great for promoting the interests of local farmers and food producers (which I totally endorse), but local products are generally more expensive AND NOT NECESSARILY HEALTHY. At least here in Toronto, many of the local food restaurants have menus dominated by fatty cuts of red meat, bacon, butter and white flour pastas and breads. Even if that's all locally produced, it ain't healthy!

  22. charlotte7:40 pm

    I disagree. First of all, Martha isn't some obscure health nut - she's an incredibly popular author of many cookbooks whose NYT recipes are eagerly anticipated each week by her many fans. Nor are her recipes difficult, "fancy," or complicated - I'm no chef, and I often throw together one of her creations after a long day at work.

    Like many of the other food writers on the NYT website, Martha's recipes appeal to those with an adventurous palate and an appreciation for good food who appreciate the value of eating seasonally and sustainably. There are many of us out there who simultaneously want to treat the earth, our bodies, and our palates well when we nourish ourselves, just as there are many people who want to improve their health while eating their favourite, familiar comfort foods (go Looneyspoons!).

    Also, the ingredients you describe her using above aren't really all that obscure - most can be found in your local grocery store. And your life will be better with walnut oil in it, drizzled on some sliced pears, some roasted beets, goat cheese, and lentils, or a chunk of crusty baguette. Delicious. Not to mention all of the EFAs and B vitamins!

  23. Anonymous10:43 pm

    Same goes for diets designed for weight loss.

    The National Weight Control Registry (of people who lost weight and kept it off) found routine diets generally more effective than complicated diets.

  24. Did you read the comments on Shulman's article? Several of them run on similar lines. I think my favorite one is "How about some reasonably healthful suggestions that don't fall into the Cold And Wet food group?"

    Admittedly this is one of her more extreme "crunchy-granola" efforts lately, or rather crunchy lentil n' chard. I consider myself a reasonably advanced cook/adventurous eater, and have made other recipes of hers in the past, and I wouldn't want to get near anything in this week's column. My grocery doesn't even CARRY chard. I'm just fine with my oven-roasted chicken sammich also. (Mine has avocado, and I add a carrot along with my apple.) But there are a couple of muffins and scones from her recipes in the freezer, for when I'm in a hurry.

    Part of the difficulty I think is that there are now so many mixed messages out there on diet and nutrition. Watch what happens in the NYT comment section of any article offering grain-based or bread recipes for instance — almost immediately comments will pop up suggesting that wheat is poison, corn is the GMO-tainted fruit of the devil, and carbs are the cause of the obesity crisis; for a recipe containing meat, similar comments will appear but promoting "Forks over Knives." How are most ordinary, busy people supposed to deal with constructing healthy meals in the face of this?

  25. Anonymous5:36 am

    May I advocate the brevity and simplicity of Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat (whole) food. Mostly plants. Not too much." (parenthetical addition is mine).

  26. That food looks pretty good to me and is similar to what I would make as a side dish for an especially nice dinner or take to a potluck. However, if those are meant to be full meals, it strikes me that the portions are quite small for food that's not very calorie dense, and it all looks to be a bit too low carb (for me). Too much effort and expense for weekday lunches, IMHO, even for someone who occupies the social class that eats that type of food.

    And yeah. Big class issue. Toast, tuna and a piece of fruit would be just as healthy.

  27. Anonymous12:38 pm

    Excellent article.

    Why not go back to basics? Three square meals a day, and one or two healthy snacks.

    A "square" meal means 1) protein (2) a legume, potato or wheat-based item and (3) vegetables or fruit.

    Acceptable snacks include small servings of nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and cheese.

    And desserts and all sodas should be occasional treats, not a regular part of anyone's diet.

  28. Nicole11:51 am

    I've been thinking about this since I read it and thinking YES!!! YES, YES YES!!!

    And I'd also take it a step further. I think the complexity of the recipes out there combined with the sheer volume of (usually conflicting) nutrition information out there makes healthy eating too daunting.

    I am educated and an experienced cook. I think and research a lot. I want to eat well and feed my kids well. I also tend to be a perfectionist so tend to want to research and find the perfect way to do things. I happen to be raising my kids in an area where about half the families I know are gluten free and I have several vegan or raw vegan friends. So I hear a lot: "it's easy!! All you have to do is...." But so much of what I read and hear is conflicting. Can I eat that sandwich or is the wheat poisoning me? Are sweet potatoes and nuts nutritional powerhouses or vile vehicles of evil carbs and fats? Are we even allowed to eat baked potatoes anymore? I used to think that chocolate milk was fine but now I understand it's too sugary. What other things do I think I'm doing right that really are wrong? And then you throw in goji berries, cacao nibs, herbs I've never heard of and the whole prospect of healthy eating seems insurmountable.

    It is all so overwhelming and confusing. We get a farm share (CSA) and end up eating a largely plant based diet in the end, but I often feel so conflicted and confused that I feel like throwing in the towel and gong through the drive through because at least I know my kids will eat that.

    And that's really the crux of it....if I, an educated, thoughtful experienced cook can't figure out what I'm supposed to be eating or what the heck the ingredients mean there is simply no hope for the mass population. The drive through is easy and satisfying and way more accessible than nutrition information.

  29. Anonymous2:52 pm

    Agreed. I'm a 42 yr old male and It's salad season again, I'm starting to train and my cycling kit needs me to drop 8 or 9 pounds to fit well.

    I like simple and quick so for lunch I combine mixed salad leafs with a hunk of iceberg lettuce and other bits (radishes, chopped carrots etc) for lunch every day. The number of times I'm harassed in the lunch room by the girls at my work is unbelievable! Don't you know that iceberg has no nutrition? You shouldn't eat iceberg lettuce, it's this or that, you should instead use this or that.

    If that wasn't maddening enough, they refuse to accept my counter argument that my ('nutritionally deficient') salad is what i'm eating instead of my daily, delicious, food-cart burrito.

    Simplify man! When the alternative is a Redonkadonk burger (at my nearest pod) or two slices or pepperoni pizza, I'm not going to get rickets from eating a few ounces of iceberg lettuce in my salad.

  30. Anonymous1:58 pm

    I've stopped cooking recipes with so many ingredients. I want to taste the food, firstly, but also the more ingredients you use, the more the dish costs and the more one-use expensive ingredients lurking in your cupboard, or worse, garbage.

    I make the best broccoli soup I've ever had, in just over 60 yrs of cooking. Home made chicken broth at a simmer, six slivered cloves garlic, couple bunches chopped broccoli leaves and all, simmer about three mins then blend. Simmer another three mins, add the juice of a lemon, some salt and pepper, and enjoy. No potatoes, carrots, onions, nutmeg, and especially no CHEESE.

    Very healthy, very quick, and very delicious.