Category Archives: Food

Beyond Broccoli Holiday Nutrition Tips:

Tired of the same old holiday nutrition tips that promote a focus on calories, fat grams, weight gain, and other negative consequences of dietary indiscretion, here are some ideas that fit more with the Beyond Broccoli nutrition philosophy and approach.

  1. Be kind to yourself. This does not replace the giving to others we emphasize during the holiday season – compassion for others is linked to self-compassion. You cannot give what you don’t have and you take the best care of what you love. You do the best you can and that is enough.
  2. Check in with why you are eating. The holiday season presents endless opportunities to graze mindlessly. Sometimes the simple question “what do I really need/want right now?” can stop or at least make you aware of eating for non-hunger reasons (emotions, environment, peer pressure).
  3. Eat slowly and intentionally. Identify pleasing flavors and textures in the food you eat and give your brain the 20 minutes it needs to identify fullness. It helps to eat sitting down with minimal distractions (not an easy task for many of us!).
  4. Notice how your body feels after you eat. This primitive instinct once let us know which foods (or amounts of food) caused digestive discomfort so we could avoid (or eat less of) the food the next time. Understanding which foods nourish our bodies best can empower us to make better choices.
  5. Eat regularly throughout the day. When we go too long without eating we set ourselves up to overeat. This is basic biology – part of our hard-wired survival instincts, now mismatched with our abundant food supply. If you are going to a holiday dinner or party in the evening you can make healthier food choices during the day, but skipping meals and arriving at your special occasion ravenous is not a good idea.
  6.  Stay hydrated. Our need for fluid increases with many environmental extremes including hot, cold, dry and high altitude. Many of us are conscious about drinking more water when it’s hot but forget we need more when it’s cold and/or dry too. Soups and hot tea are great ways to increase fluid on cold days.
  7. Strive to include joyful movement in your busy holiday schedule. Physical activity can take many forms – find ways to move that you enjoy and you are more likely to keep this as part of your holiday self-care regimen. Forcing yourself to squeeze in a gym session can create more stress than it relieves. Dance at holiday parties, acknowledge that holiday shopping and cleaning are opportunities to be active and “count” as physical activity.
  8. Savor food you perceive as special treats. Choose your special treat foods, knowing that in our modern world most foods are available any time of year so identify the truly special foods for you. Notice that when you give yourself permission to eat and savor these foods you may “need” less of them to feel satisfied.
  9. Shared meals provide benefits beyond physical nourishment. Food connects us as humans – we all must eat to live. There is research that supports many benefits of family meals. Taking time to share meals during the holiday season can help us feel grounded, connected to each other, and in charge of our lives vs. stressed out about how out-of-control this season can get.
  10. Remember to breathe. Deep breathing has many benefits, especially related to stress resilience. Stress is an inevitable part of life and our ability to work through stressful moments or events is important for many reasons, including the ability to not use food as an antidote. Just 3 deep “belly breaths” can change the blood flow in your brain from your “fight or flight” response to your more “rational” thinking.

Never Enough

Last week kicked off the holiday season with our celebration of Thanks. I love the simplicity of Thanksgiving – gather with family, friends, or neighbors to celebrate what we are grateful for and share good food. However, the irony of this day of thanks followed by the biggest shopping day on the American calendar is not lost on me, nor is the fact that we spend the rest of the holiday season focused on what we don’t have or what others don’t have (the latter to guide our giving). It seems that despite our gratitude for what we have, somehow there is never enough of something.

I am reminded of Brene Brown’s gem of a book The Gifts of Imperfection in which she writes about cultivating a gratitude practice to counter our feelings of scarcity. She points out ways that we buy into the myth of scarcity, often subconsciously. In our society, despite abundant resources relative to other parts of the world or other times in human history, many of us focus on the ways we don’t have enough, can’t get enough, or just are not enough.

We don’t get enough sleep, exercise, recognition for our hard work, or vegetables (couldn’t resist). We don’t have enough time, power, love, or money. We aren’t attractive, thin, fit, smart, or rich enough. These everyday thoughts and feelings of lacking something (or lots of things) keep us searching, both consciously and unconsciously to fill a void, real and imagined.

The reality is, many of these things may be true, at least on the surface. We may not have enough money to pay all of our bills on time or to buy the perfect gift for a loved one, and it’s no secret that lots of Americans are sleep-deprived. But the continued focus on what we lack in every aspect of our lives is not helpful, even if it is true.

Balancing thoughts of what we lack with thoughts of what we have, and more importantly what we are grateful for in ourselves and in others, may help us fill this void. No, positive thoughts don’t directly pay our bills and this isn’t some hippie notion like “love will conquer all” (though love is a great start). In fact ignoring discomfort leads to a host of issues beyond the scope of this blog post. But unless we take a closer look at what we actually have, it is difficult to accurately assess what we really need.

So how does all of this relate to nutrition? Well, it turns out that one of the ways many of us try to “fill” this inner void is by eating (or not eating – food restriction is another way to numb, distract or ignore emotional pain and discomfort).

Now Brene Brown and others who write about perceived scarcity and the benefits of cultivating a gratitude practice don’t frame this practice specifically as a way to address emotional eating (compulsive overeating, binge eating, or eating when feeling any number of emotions and not physically hungry). But I wonder what could happen if we try to focus daily on what we are grateful for, even in some small way. I understand the challenge of starting something new during the insanely busy holiday season but I don’t think this needs to be super time-consuming or complicated (see below for ideas).

I also realize this is an emotionally difficult time of year for many of us who have experienced losses. Though it has been nearly 20 years since my Dad died, his love of all things Christmas still makes me sad at random times throughout this season. It is clear to me though, focusing on the loss and sadness isn’t helpful anymore. However, focusing on how grateful I am for my memories of Dad, even if they make me feel sad, is intriguing to me. Will this somehow help mindless munching I do while not conscious that I am feel an emptiness? I don’t know but I think it’s worth a try.

It does occur to me however, that it may be better to not immediately try to counter feelings of sadness, emptiness, or other emotional discomfort with thoughts about gratitude since the idea is not to invalidate our feelings. I think it may be better to set aside a time to practice gratitude, and to allow thoughts of gratitude to naturally surface at other times but perhaps pay slightly more attention to these thoughts. Say them out loud or share them with someone close to you.

Perhaps if we all try to notice when we are falling into thoughts and feelings of scarcity, and acknowledge what we are grateful for more consistently and consciously, we may not feel a need to fill ourselves with food when what we need or want has nothing to do with food.

So let’s try an informal cultural experiment. If you struggle with any variety of emotional eating, try to somehow incorporate a gratitude practice for even a few minutes each day and see what happens. If you want to, you can come back to this post and let us know how the experiment went for you or you can email me privately (mary@beyondbroccoli.com).

Here are some ideas from people who practice gratitude:

  • Start a gratitude journal – each morning or evening write down at least one thing you are grateful for. Doesn’t need to be fancy, a small memo pad works just fine.
  • Create a gratitude jar in which you write thoughts related to gratitude that come up throughout your day on little pieces of paper and put the pieces of paper in the jar.
  • Begin shared meals with each person at the table sharing something they are grateful for.
  • Use prayer or meditation to reflect on what makes you feel gratitude.

Meanwhile, I am grateful for all of you who read my ramblings. I hope the holiday season is off to a good start for all of you and that you know – you are enough in all of the ways that matter.

Here is a lovely 6 minute video with a Gratitude theme by cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj2ofrX7jAk

Eating Beyond “Superfoods”

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”     – P. J. O’Rourke

Recently as I perused the produce department of my local grocery store, a man asked me if I knew anything about juicing – he pointed to a bunch of fresh beets and chunk of fresh ginger root in his cart. He wondered if the bunch of fresh  greens in his hand from a bin marked simply “greens” was okay for juice, or if he should use kale. Just then a produce employee arrived on the scene and informed us the mystery greens were mustard greens. So I explained to the man that all of the dark leafy greens were very nutritious and the mustard greens have a spicier flavor so the choice of greens to juice is more a matter of taste preference. The produce employee interrupted us to encourage the man toward kale because – “it’s a Superfood.”

Irritated on several levels, (and I am not proud of my next move) I pulled the “I’m a dietitian” card with the hope the annoying employee would go away, which he kind of did. But now the man holding the greens perked up and asked if I knew another dietitian here in town, and when I replied that I did know her, the man beamed as he pointed to his cart and said “she’d be proud of me wouldn’t she?” I agreed, and wished him luck with his juicing adventure. As I walked away, he tucked a bunch of fresh kale next to the bundle of beets and headed toward the cash registers, not realizing mustard greens are also “Superfoods” they just don’t have a publicist yet.

Sigh. Mustard greens are cruciferous vegetables in the Brassicaceae family – along with kale, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, brussel sprouts, Kholrabi (my husband calls this the “alien vegetable”), bok choy, and cauliflower.

This produce department incident is actually brimming with blog material but right now my focus is: “Superfoods.“ I know this isn’t a new concept. We live in a culture that LOVES superheroes, and celebrities, so it really isn’t a surprise we apply this concept to foods. In general there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to expand their culinary horizons to include whichever food currently has the best PR campaign or celebrity endorsement. Generally these foods are rich in beneficial plant compounds or some mix of nutrients we don’t get enough of, but somehow I find this trendy obsession irritating. I googled “celebrity kale” and came up with an Us Weekly headline “Stars Who Love Kale” followed by a long list of articles, blogs and websites where apparently celebrities gush about this leafy Brassica. Sigh again.

I  guess I should start with the fact that I have nothing against kale. In fact, I really enjoy kale – starting several years ago when I was a work-share for a season at the Cosmic Apple Gardens, a local CSA over in Victor, Idaho. Prior to that summer, kale was simply a popular garnish used in many of the restaurants and banquets I’d worked in my former food and beverage career. (Current kale enthusiasts would cringe at the thought of the millions of pounds of this vegetable superhero tossed in the garbage of restaurant kitchens after serving its aesthetic purpose.)

I was also thrilled to discover this member of the cruciferous family, a group best known for cancer-fighting powers, grows beautifully in the harsh soil and abbreviated growing season here in northern Wyoming. Even I, brown thumb who generally does best with plants like cactus that thrive on neglect, can grow kale!

But here’s the thing, if we focus on a narrow array of “Superfoods,” we not only miss out on the variety of tastes and textures that make eating pleasurable, we burn out on whatever the latest thing is. I mean how many times a week can you eat kale before you are over it?

Not to mention that I can buy broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts for half the cost of a bunch of fresh kale (especially if I go organic).  And, better still, incorporating more variety allows me to make a delicious cabbage salad with toasted pumpkin seeds to go with Mexican main dishes, broccoli (or even more fun – broccoli rabe) with pasta, a mustard greens and goat cheese omelet, and by the time I get to the kale and white bean soup I’ve been in cruciferous heaven for days! Admittedly I stumble a bit with cauliflower and brussel sprouts – not my personal faves. Though I have found ways to make these two palatable, it takes a bit of extra effort (and a lot of garlic – or a grill) so I choose them less often.

I guess my point is – it is difficult to find a vegetable or fruit that isn’t a “Superfood.” Nutrition research shows again and again that eating more fruits and veggies of all kinds (non-starchy anyway) offers a whole host of benefits from lowering our risk of heart disease and many cancers, to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Just because Gweneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston aren’t raving about broccoli (and let’s not forget George Bush Sr.’s anti-broccoli tirade) doesn’t mean we need to forgo the (broccoli) trees for the (kale) leaves! And what if broccoli actually had a PR campaign? Check it out http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/broccolis-extreme-makeover.html?ref=health&_r=2&

Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us

I am no stranger to the genre of Food Industry Horror Stories, both in book and film forms. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was my first plunge into the seamy underside of our industrialized food system and its myriad cultural implications. Sadly many others have expanded on Schlosser’s work, including the latest contribution from investigative journalist Michael Moss called Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Moss shares what he learned from food industry researchers and executives themselves about how foods are specifically designed to entice people to eat past the point of normal fullness; calculated “bliss points” are used for added sugars, just the right texture and amount of salt for a “flavor burst” to maximize the rush to the brain’s pleasure centers upon hitting the tongue, and fats that add both flavor and a quality called “mouthfeel” – a powerful combination that does not seem to trigger messages to stop eating.

For those of us who encourage our clients to work towards normal or “intuitive eating” rather than restrained eating, Moss’ reminder about the many foods engineered to derail this internal system is both frustrating and important. People who struggle with compulsive overeating, binge eating, or restricted eating that stems from fear they will not be able to stop eating once they begin, at some point need to know that their behaviors are not entirely emotionally based or a sign they are somehow bereft of willpower. This is exactly what food manufacturers want all of us to do – eat what they produce, in excessive amounts, and often. These so-called Food Giants also spend billions of dollars to market highly processed, ultra-palatable foods, and to make sure they are available nearly everywhere we go.

My hope is that the information in Moss’ book will help us be more aware when we eat processed foods, knowing they are deliberately hard to resist overeating. If this deeper understanding about how processed foods are made and marketed so we will eat more helps us let go of the guilt that often comes with eating these foods, particularly if we eat more than we planned to, then I am all for this type of consumer education.

I am concerned however, that yet another of these dire warnings about our food system will reinforce rigid all-or-nothing thinking about what we eat (or don’t eat) based on fear. It is one thing to strive for more whole or minimally processed foods that support good health and another to be so fearful of processed foods that when our options are limited and that is the only food available, we either don’t eat at all, or we are overly anxious while eating (not good for digestion or absorption of nutrients not to mention the increased release of damaging stress hormones).

I guess I’m a bit of an idealist in that I prefer to inspire change rather than jam it down people’s throats with a heavy dose of fear. But I have to admit, I like the idea that when we eat more whole foods and prepare more of our meals at home rather than outsourcing this important work to big food companies (restaurants, ready-prepared or frozen meals in grocery stores, etc.) we are effectively rebelling against a modern food system in dire need of repair.

“Good Food,” “Bad Food,” Wait – Why Am I Eating?

The idea that food is either “good” or “bad” is one I have struggled with for years. I don’t mean that I can’t decide which foods support good health and which do not, though dietary trends at any given time try to complicate this picture. What I struggle with is the moralistic labeling of foods, and ultimately how we view ourselves when we eat these foods. If we eat “healthy” we feel virtuous and if we eat “junk food” we feel guilty. The reality is that our overall eating habits are what matter most, including the why, what, when, where, how, and how much we eat. To boil all that down to “I ate French Fries so I’m bad” or “I ate a salad so I’m good” just isn’t helpful for people who struggle with health or weight issues, and it’s not an accurate picture of health for anyone.

So, for years I supported not labeling foods as simply “good” or “bad,” until I learned about how the food industry co-opted the “no bad foods” mantra as a way to peddle more highly processed (and profitable) foods with little (or no) nutritional value. While I do believe there is room in a healthy overall diet for some less-nutritious options, and I also believe foods are not inherently “good” or “evil” – food is just food, hawking the idea that there is no such thing as a bad food from a nutritional perspective is ludicrous. Furthermore, billions of dollars are spent to market these less nutritious options that are usually cheaper and more widely available than more nutritious foods, and in many cases these foods are engineered to override our internal hunger/fullness regulators. Suddenly the “all foods fit” model is more difficult to embrace.

Now, however, I believe the bigger problem with the oversimplification of foods as “good or bad” or stating “there are no bad foods” is that we accept these reductionist ideas without much thought. In fact we have become so focused on what we eat (or don’t eat) that we give little attention to all of the other aspects of eating mentioned above (why, when, etc.). As it turns out, some of these other factors have a major impact on both what and how much, we eat.

We humans eat for a variety of reasons and always have. Those of us in the developed world have more food available than ever before, so merely having enough food is not the issue it was for our ancestors. Even so, we have this idea that food “should” only be for nourishment. The reality is that even primitive cultures that did not have a consistently adequate food supply used food for fuel or sustenance, sometimes medicine, as well as social reasons such as celebrations.

To limit food to only fuel or medicine (“good food”) is not realistic for most people. While some may choose this path to the table, most of us want food to be more versatile. So what if we first ask ourselves: why am I eating this food? Or why do I want that food? We could then have the honest, open conversation with ourselves about our overall eating habits. Sometimes we may answer: I’m hungry and this food will fill me up or I don’t feel well and this food will nourish me. Other times we may say: I like the taste of this food or I want to be part of this celebration with food.

With this ‘why we eat’ approach we can take the judgment out of eating so we are not simply “good” or “bad” because we ate or chose not to eat a particular food. We can learn more about why we choose the foods we do. If we find ourselves making many of our food choices for non-hunger reasons – we are bored, frustrated, happy, sad, or lonely and food is a way to distract, soothe, comfort, numb, or reward ourselves, then we can address these other issues. If what we really need is something other than food, no amount of food will satisfy us. If we are eating because the food is in eyesight or we just saw an ad for a food we like, then we can think about ways to limit those visual cues or at least acknowledge we are influenced by them.

The “why am I eating?” approach can also help us re-connect with when we are hungry and when we have had enough. As we learn more about what we really need, we don’t have to rely on others to tell us what to eat because we will know what makes us feel good – physically and mentally. Instead of asking ourselves “is this food good or bad” we can ask “is this food what I really need or want right now?”

Beyond Broccoli is Back in Wyoming!

Back in Jackson, Wyoming, and my dream job – Beyond Broccoli Nutrition Counseling and Education. There is so much to share with you from my four plus years in the Seattle area. Luckily I don’t need to squeeze it all into one blog post so I’ll begin by sharing some of the highlights.

First, as many of you know, eating more whole and minimally processed foods to improve our health is part of my nutrition philosophy and approach. The endless stream of dietary fads pushes me more firmly towards simplifying what we eat, taking back control over preparing more of our food at home, learning to make nourishing foods taste delicious, finding ways to eat well amidst our often insanely busy schedules, learning to wade through the marketing hype that awaits us on nearly every grocery store shelf, and finally, creating sustainable daily habits that support our health and well-being. So, teaching at Bastyr University the past four years was an incredible experience.

I was thrilled to be part of a nutrition department that shares my holistic views related to the importance of whole foods and an integrative approach to helping people improve their health. Bastyr began as a school for naturopathic physicians and expanded to include herbal science, acupuncture and oriental medicine, midwifery, and many options that combine nutrition with exercise and sports science, culinary arts, and clinical healthy psychology. So my students had a variety of interests and most were eager to change the status quo in the fields of nutrition and health care.

Over the past four years I encouraged my students in a variety of classes to rise up to the challenge of changing our broken or too often inadequate food and healthcare systems, and to expand the increasingly narrow view of nutrition and health that underlie these systems. In my cultural foods classes students explored the important role that culture plays in determining what, when, why, how, where, and how much we eat. My Food & Society class delved even deeper into the subject of what shapes and determines our eating habits, with forays into the mismatch of human biology and our current food environment; food psychology that can interfere with our best intentions to eat intuitively and mindfully; food politics that influence many aspects of our food system including nutrition recommendations and education; and the many elements of our industrialized, globalized food system that makes the idea of sweeping changes daunting.

In all of my classes I found opportunities to challenge my students to think beyond simply telling people what to do, whether they are working with individual patients or clients to change lifestyle behaviors, or trying to reach a class, audience, or readership about changes that need to happen within our food system. Change is difficult and on all levels change requires a mix of collaboration and motivation – or in my ideal scenario, inspiration!

This brings me to another core belief: eating is one of the basic human needs that connects us all, and I believe it should be enjoyable, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have an adequate, consistent supply of food. Sadly, too many people currently make food choices based on fear, or beat themselves up for not making changes they “should” make. We are bombarded with messages suggesting there is some perfect way to eat to insure optimal health, and worse, that there is one path to health (and it’s lined with kale!).

My work over the past two years at an intensive outpatient clinic for eating disorders was a stark reminder of what can happen when we approach nutrition narrowly defining health in terms of weight, rigidly adhering to generally prescribed rules of eating, and accept our modern culture’s preoccupation with outward appearance as paramount to success in life. The lessons I taught my students about change applied in the clinical setting as well. My goal was to engage my patients and to collaborate with them, and support them through the long, difficult process of trading their eating disorder for genuine and sustainable self-care. Of course being part of an amazing multi-disciplinary team of medical, nutrition, and mental health professionals all working with our patients toward common goals, was incredibly helpful for our patients and satisfying for me.

So I return to Beyond Broccoli more determined than ever to help my clients and patients find what will help them reach their nutrition and health-related goals, and to support them in the pro

cess of making changes in ways that are individualized, effective, realistic, and of course sustainable for the long-term. I continue to get fired up about using creative ideas and experiential learning techniques when possible, like cooking, grocery shopping, and whatever else my clients need in terms of skills and ideas. I still believe amidst the hard work of changing nutrition and other habits we can have some fun. I look forward to sharing more of what I have learned with all of you, here in Wyoming and beyond, and to hearing from you!

So happy to be back in Wyoming!
So happy to be back in Wyoming!

Make Healthy Foods Taste AMAZING!

I saw this headline today “ADA Survey Shows More Families Eating at Home” and clicked through to read more. According to this survey of roughly 1,200 pairs of parents and children:

  • At-home family meals increased from 52 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2010.
  • Most families eat out less often, with an average of 57.2 families eating out less than once a week.
  • Aside from hunger, most children said taste was the main reason they ate, and said it would be easier to eat more healthfully if the food tasted better.

While I am encouraged by the first two points that contradict much of the trend data I have seen in recent years with respect to meals eaten away from home, the third point was most interesting to me.

This quarter I decided to audit the quintessential Bastyrian nutrition course “Whole Foods Production” taught by renowned author of Feeding the Whole Family Cynthia Lair. I have taught my own versions of whole foods cooking classes and incorporated whole foods cooking demonstrations into classes, community talks and events for several years but I have never taken a formal cooking class. I know from my experience both cooking and serving at different vegetarian restaurants prior to pursuing my nutrition career, that healthful food can taste amazingly good and often much more interesting than the standard American fare. I also know both from personal and professional experience, many people do not know how to make healthy foods in general and vegetables in particular, taste great.

What excites me most about the Whole Foods Production class is that the hundreds of students who take this class each year will go forward to spread the knowledge and skills (often with enthusiasm) related to making healthy foods taste great. When I go to a restaurant where the salad consists of iceberg lettuce topped with a few pale, mealy tomato slices, maybe a bland cucumber slice, and a few croutons sprinkled on top I think about how I, a longtime vegophile, would not eat vegetables the way I do if this was my regular option!

So here’s a question for all of you….what makes healthy foods taste GREAT to you? Do you already know how to make these foods taste good? Let’s get a conversation going to drive the trend towards eating better not because it will make us skinny or live longer (though these are certainly noble goals) but because we will enjoy eating that way!

“Baby Carrots – Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

“Life expectancy would increase by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”

–      Gary Larson, The Far Side cartoonist

Despite the huge growth of farmer’s markets and apparent interest in better quality food over the past few years, we aren’t eating any more veggies now than we were a decade ago. Let’s face it, vegetables have an image problem. I’ve heard all the reasons so many times – not tasty enough, convenient enough, too expensive, too much work to prepare, take too much time to eat, etc.

Oh sure the farmer’s market crowd oohs and aahs over bundles of rainbow-colored Swiss Chard or fresh, crisp asparagus, but in general people aren’t sneaking out at night to the produce department to satisfy snack cravings. In fact last time I checked French fries were still the most commonly consumed vegetable in the U.S. (unless they are omitted from a particular survey in which case iceberg lettuce claims top spot).

So, this week I stumbled onto something potentially exciting in the vegetable world (at least for nutrition geeks like me) as I prepared to show my Food & Society class (the class I described in my last blog entry) an example of a sign of positive change.

There is a new PR campaign by “a bunch of carrot farmers” to promote baby carrots “like junk food.” (www.babycarrots.com) The $25 million dollar effort started last fall with vending machines in a few east coast high schools that dispense brightly colored packages of baby carrots available for just .50 cents.

Okay, even though $25 mill sounds impressive I realize it’s a mere pittance compared to the billions spent to promote fast and other junk food annually. It’s unlikely the fake orange cheese snack makers are trembling right now at the new orange crunchy snack kid in town. And yes, promoting more excessively (non-recyclable) packaged foods isn’t helping our landfills, nor are these conventionally grown veggies helping the causes of sustainable agriculture or a re-regionalized food system.

But, to reiterate one of my main themes these days, I am looking for signs of progress – not perfection (see previous rant related to Lunchables). As we simultaneously struggle to help people eat better for their health and to re-tool our food and agricultural systems for a more sustainable future, there is much work to do.

As we work to get junk food out of schools we need to replace it with something. Maybe baby carrots can blaze the vending machine trail for fresh snap peas, grape tomatoes, and colored bell pepper strips. Maybe for another quarter you can get a side of hummus or Ranch dressing to dip them in (increasing palatability for picky eaters).

We need to eat more vegetables. Kids need to eat more vegetables. We whine incessantly about the cost and inconvenience of vegetables and lament veggies’ lack of cachet in our modern food culture. (Though last fall in Manhattan an auction featuring heirloom vegetables was part of an event that raised over $250,000 for various charities!) Now enter “a bunch of carrot farmers” and some creative, savvy ad people and voila, baby carrots are getting a makeover.

The part I love about the ad campaign (aside from the prospect of getting more people to eat more carrots) is that it’s creative and fun. The campaign makes fun of commonly used advertising strategies – sexual innuendo, heavy metal music, violence, and politically incorrect (or at least suspect) language. There is a fun website (with LOUD and to my tastes obnoxious music), free iPhone app, Facebook and Twitter links, and downloadable labels you can attach to your own baby carrot bags (providing a more eco-friendly packaging option for those who wish to print on recycled paper and re-use their own baggies or containers).

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for what seem like baby steps toward positive change. I hope however, that you appreciate there is no single answer to the many nutrition, food and health challenges we face. If baby carrots are suddenly in the hands of even a few hundred school kids in place of high fat, sugar and salt-laden snack foods, even if it isn’t everyday it’s a good thing.

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
P. J. O’Rourke

Baby Carrots – “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

“Life expectancy would increase by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”

–      Gary Larson, The Far Side cartoonist

Despite the huge growth of farmer’s markets and apparent interest in better quality food over the past few years, we aren’t eating any more veggies now than we were a decade ago. Let’s face it, vegetables have an image problem. I’ve heard all the reasons so many times – not tasty enough, convenient enough, too expensive, too much work to prepare, take too much time to eat, etc.

Oh sure the farmer’s market crowd oohs and aahs over bundles of rainbow-colored Swiss Chard or fresh, crisp asparagus, but in general people aren’t sneaking out at night to the produce department to satisfy snack cravings. In fact last time I checked French fries were still the most commonly consumed vegetable in the U.S. (unless fries are omitted from a particular survey in which case iceberg lettuce claims top spot).

So, this week I stumbled onto something potentially exciting in the vegetable world (at least for nutrition geeks like me) as I prepared to show my Food & Society class (the class I described in my last blog entry) an example of a sign of positive change.

There is a new PR campaign by “a bunch of carrot farmers” to promote baby carrots “like junk food.” (www.babycarrots.com) The $25 million dollar effort started last fall with vending machines in a few east coast high schools that dispense brightly colored packages of baby carrots available for just .50 cents.

Okay, even though $25 mill sounds impressive I realize it’s a mere pittance compared to the billions spent to promote fast and other junk food annually. It’s unlikely the fake orange cheese snack makers are trembling right now at the new orange crunchy snack kid in town. And yes, promoting more excessively (non-recyclable) packaged foods isn’t helping our landfills, nor are these conventionally grown veggies helping the causes of sustainable agriculture or re-regionalized food systems.

But, to reiterate one of my main themes these days, I am looking for signs of progress – not perfection (see previous rant related to Lunchables).  As we simultaneously struggle to help people eat better for their health and to re-tool our food and agricultural systems for a more sustainable future, there is much work to be done.

As we work to get junk food out of schools we need to replace it with something. Maybe baby carrots can blaze the vending machine trail for fresh snap peas, grape tomatoes, and colored bell pepper strips. Maybe for another quarter you can get a side of hummus or Ranch dressing to dip them in (increasing palatability for picky eaters).

We need to eat more vegetables. Kids need to eat more vegetables. We whine incessantly about the cost and inconvenience of vegetables and lament veggies’ lack of cachet in our modern food culture. (Though last fall in Manhattan an auction featuring heirloom vegetables was part of an event that raised over $250,000 for various charities!) Now enter “a bunch of carrot farmers” and some creative, savvy ad people and voila, baby carrots are getting a makeover.

The part I love about the ad campaign (aside from the prospect of getting more people to eat more carrots) is that it’s creative and fun. The campaign makes fun of commonly used advertising strategies – sexual innuendo, heavy metal music, violence, and politically incorrect (or at least suspect) language. There is a fun website (with LOUD and to my tastes obnoxious music), free iPhone app, Facebook and Twitter pages, and downloadable labels you can attach to your own baby carrot bags (providing a more eco-friendly packaging option for those who wish to print on recycled paper and re-use their own baggies or containers).

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for these baby (carrot!) steps toward positive change. I hope however, that you appreciate there is no single answer to the many nutrition, food and health challenges we face. If baby carrots are suddenly in the hands of even a few hundred school kids in place of high fat, sugar and salt-laden snack foods, even if it isn’t everyday it’s a good thing.

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
P. J. O’Rourke

Translating Frustration Into Action

I just began teaching “Food & Society” for the second time at Bastyr University (just north of Seattle in Kenmore, WA). This course is inspired by similar courses introduced at Stanford by Christopher Gardner and at Yale by Kelly Brownell – both of whom generously shared their respective course materials to help me get started last year.

My Bastyr version of “Food & Society” is a nutrition course designed to give students a broader perspective of nutrition, exploring how what we eat is influenced by biological, psychological, sociocultural, political, economic, ethical, and environmental factors.  We read books and view films by contemporary activists from what is commonly called the grassroots social food movement.  Books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating and films like Super Size Me and Food, Inc. We attempt to understand the complex interactions between food, nutrition, health, and the larger world in which we live and eat.

The fun part of the course is discussing what we read and view. I believe strongly that if we are to change the current food and nutrition paradigm we must learn to communicate with those who don’t share our worldviews. So I like to play Devil’s Advocate during discussions and encourage students to read Op-Ed articles that don’t agree with the assigned reading and viewing.  I’ve done a fair bit of “preaching to the choir” and while this is a way to garner support and the strength to pursue often difficult changes, it isn’t the best way to expand a movement. (Plus, I’m not naive enough to think I have all the answers to the very complex problems we face related to nutrition and food!)

So, after many years of learning about these problems and trying to find ways to foster solutions on a local level back in Jackson, Wyoming, I am in a place with new opportunities to turn my frustrations into action. My students at Bastyr are not happy with the status quo related to food and nutrition either. More importantly, they are sharp, motivated and will ultimately end up practicing in nutrition and other health fields (the course is open to all students not just nutrition majors) all over the country. My hope is that this class will encourage my students to ask the hard questions, consider a variety of perspectives related to these complex issues, and (best case scenario) take action toward changes.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

–        Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948)