Well Noted: Tell Me What to Eat

Feb. 14, 2006
Where nutrition educators are struggling, manufacturers may be succeeding.

As a dietitian, the refrain I hear most from individuals wanting to lose weight is, "Just tell me what to eat."

I've yet to meet anyone honest enough to want the answer to that question. I believe this because, when I answer - my response invariably being what they don't want to hear: "Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, pasta, olive oil…all in moderation" - they only repeat the question.

Heretofore, the approach to nutrition by health and diet experts reminds me of an old story: A well-dressed gentleman, somewhat in his cups, is crawling about on all fours under a streetlight at 2:00 in the morning. An officer of the law comes by and asks him what he's doing. "I'm looking for my house keys," the guy says. The officer starts to help him look but, after half an hour of fruitless endeavor, he prods the guy for more clues. "Where did you last have them?" he asks. The guy answers, "Over on Third St." Looking up incredulously, the cop asks, "Then what are we doing over here on Fifth?" "Well," says the gentleman, puffing himself up with full inebriated logic, "because the light is better over here."

Decades of trying to get Americans to eat better failed miserably, to where obesity is still epidemic along with the malnourishment brought on by too many calories and not enough nutrients. Yet nutrition experts persist in the same "information first" strategy. I guess because the light is better.

Improving diet is not - and likely hasn't been in years - a matter of informing people. The people already know. They always did. We are a nation of passive self-nutritionists who have spent years fooling the experts and, more notably, ourselves, by learning to talk the talk but not walking the walk when it comes to healthy eating. Nutritionally, we are experts at paying mere lip service to minding what passes our lips.

After years of the Five-A-Day campaign pushing better eating habits, we're not much further toward that minimal goal of five daily servings of fruits and veggies than when the campaign started. And we've been counting french fries as a serving of vegetables.

McDonald's, the biggest restaurant chain in the world, just reported another profit-making year at a time when other companies are struggling. About half of all meals eaten in this nation are processed food. Around 75 cents of every dollar spent on food is spent on processed food. The average amount of time spent on making dinner during the week is less than half an hour. In many cases, significantly less.

Industry recognizes this. The previous generation of food experts' attempts to teach Jane and Joe Sixpack of Ottumwa how to eat better may not have worked. But at least that effort got things to a point where food processors realized there's a huge market in making healthier foods.

Because of this market, there's an opportunity to effect change as never before: We have the half-a-trillion-dollar food industry on our side. And it's working. Case in point: Remember McDonald's? A good part of its aforementioned growth was the result of a concerted campaign to offer healthier foods. Their apple and walnut salad and apple dippers were such hits the company is now the world's largest purchaser of fresh apples.

There's still a long way to go to, as the latest move to increase whole grain consumption shows. But industry is there, too. Witness the major cereal makers' shift to whole grains. Although their products are still a little controversial, their success has proved the following: The best way to get folks to eat healthier food is to put it in front of them, couched in familiar and proven forms.

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