I am THRILLED to announce that my #TED talk is up and ready to go! Many thanks to my family, friends and colleagues, especially Gina Messina-Dysert and Melissa Celko, for their unwavering inspiration and support!!
A few months ago, the chef and food writer Michael Ruhlman requested a meeting with me in our local supermarket, an interview of sorts, a chance to hear how I think about groceries, shopping, processed food. He asked plenty of questions, and took plenty of notes. He wrote it all up and, this past week, published an essay in the Washington Post , which then appeared in the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Cleveland Business, about my own observations on the extent to which words are manipulated to influence consumer choices and behavior. I share here some of his thoughts along with a great big “Thank you!” for spreading the word.
He opened with an anecdote about a purchase of “fat-free half-n-half” by a woman who had no idea what that descriptor actually meant. (It means half skim milk and half corn syrup.) This example happens to be a particular favorite of mine; I never miss an opportunity to explain it to patients who still use the stuff. They are usually horrified, never having given any thought to what it might actually mean.
What Michael liked most was my take on the word “healthy.” He stopped, stared, and then wrote furiously when I started talking about how crazy it was to describe food as healthy. “It’s not the food that’s healthy,” I said, “it’s us.” We who eat nourishing food are hoping to improve our health. When we eat nourishing food, our health hopefully improves.” Kale isn’t “healthy,” it’s nutritious (though not, of course, when it’s the only thing you eat).
Michael described me as an autodidact, which I have since learned means “self-taught.” Yes, that is true. I didn’t get much more than ten minutes of nutrition education in medical school (mostly in biochemistry class, where food was not the focus), and it’s possible that it was even less, which is to say none at all. And this at one of the most visionary medical schools in the country (independently corroborated, not just my opinion). That’s a huge oversight, and one that is only now slowly, much too slowly really, being corrected.
There’s a lot to this. The only way for doctors to guide patients to make better choices is for those same doctors to first learn to make the changes themselves. No one cares what you say; they only care what you do. And if what you say doesn’t match what you do, then it’s what you do that prevails. Either way, if you really want to make a difference you’ve got to start walking the walk. That is, if you aren’t already.
My pet peeve with the term “refined” got a major shout out! Yes, to refine means to remove the coarse impurities! So if you want people to buy more white flour, then you’re definitely going to want to call it refined. But if you want consumers to know that whole-grain flour is more nourishing and way better for their health, then you should just call the other stuff what it is, which is “stripped.”
Stripping removes not just the nourishing germ (oil) and bran (fiber). It also removes a lot of micronutrients, which are going to need to be replaced if folks aren’t going to develop obvious nutritional deficiencies. That’s why Congress passed legislation requiring the food industry to “enrich” bread with iron and B vitamins. And to “fortify” it with folate (vitamin B9). Why does the processed food industry strip it in the first place? To increase shelf life and profitability. Not a small thing. And what about the more subtle nutritional deficiencies? I believe that I see these in my office every day.
Here’s the overarching point: it’s not a problem if, knowing your choices and their consequences, you choose to eat something that someone else might consider less than ideal. It’s your choice, after all. However, it is a problem when you can’t figure out what your choices and their consequences are in the first place.
When industry capitalizes on your ignorance, and that drives up healthcare costs, then it’s time to look at the words. That’s where I come in, and so here is my straight talk: Eat nourishing food. Be healthy.
At work last year I won our “Yoda of Wellness” Award. Don’t get too excited about this — I work in the kind of place where everyone gets an award. But I do still love that award, and I am channeling it when I say that there is “Eat nourishing food.” There is “Be healthy.” There is no try.
To quote Michael Ruhlman: “Words matter. And those that we apply to food matter more than ever.” “And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.”
I couldn’t have said it better.