Is knowledge power?

This is a question that plagues the field of public health. Does giving people information actually have an effect? Does knowing that smoking causes lung cancer cause you to put out the cigarette? Does knowing that you could get HIV cause you to put on a condom? And, the most interesting question for me: does knowing how many calories are in the cookie determine whether or not you eat it?

This is a question that has been tested again and again with very mixed and ultimately not very compelling results either way. Sometimes nutrition information gets people to eat fewer calories; sometimes it doesn’t, whether in a laboratory setting or a real-world restaurant or cafeteria setting.

Part of the problem may be that information like calories and milligrams of sodium might not mean much to people who aren’t educated in basic nutrition. A more effective solution could be to label foods with traffic light colors, which would be way more relevant. But the criteria for the colors would be so subjective that policymakers might never agree, and I daresay the oh-so-powerful food industry would not be too happy about its products being labeled with a red sticker.

Menu labeling in chain restaurants will be law sometime soon as part of the Affordable Care Act, so I guess we’ll see how that works out. In my opinion, it’s something worth trying. At any rate, people have a right to know what the food industry has tried so hard to hide (namely, that that burrito you always order that you thought was 500 calories is actually 1000). But this type of information might be going at things from the wrong angle.

Providing nutrition information in foodservice establishments or on the fronts of food packages focuses on specific nutrients, which is, in my opinion, a symptom of the reductionism that plagues much of human health research and practice. I’m not saying that calories aren’t important; they certainly are, and I do want to know how many calories are in any packaged/processed foods I eat regularly. But it’s way more important for people to just learn to eat more whole foods and fewer highly processed foods–as I’ve been saying all along, if we all did this, we wouldn’t have to worry about calories or sodium or added fat or added sugar, especially if you eat more plants and fewer animal products.

I’m thinking it might be better use of money to create a national food and nutrition curriculum for schools so that kids can grow up learning about the food system, what’s healthy to eat, and how to cook for themselves. That kind of knowledge could be very powerful.

Do you think nutrition information would change the way you eat? Do you think education could stem obesity?

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Celebrate Food Day!

Today I want to share with you something that has come to be very important to me, and that is Food Day! Food Day, which when I have explain briefly I describe as a celebration of the movement to advocate for a better food system, is is to be celebrated on October 24th for the fourth year running. Food Day is a holiday/campaign/initiative started by an organization I have written about before, the Center for Science in the Public Interest. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Food Day here, but basically it is the culmination of a year long campaign for real, sustainable, organic, local, healthy, nutritious, socially just food for everyone! (So basically everything that this blog is about.) Schools, cities, and all kinds of organizations have been celebrating Food Day wonderfully for the last three years, running all kinds of events like speaking engagements with food issue experts, fabulous farmers market festivals, the Big Apple Crunch where everyone bites into an apple at the same time, and let’s not forget delicious, sustainably sourced feasts. The point is to educate, expand the dialogue, and gather strength to combat the problems in our food system, and to celebrate the good things and the changes already being made.

Food Day has also become very popular on college campuses, but this year marks the first Food Day celebration at my school. I’ve been very involved in planning the celebration, which includes an expansion of our usual weekly farmers market, a work party and potluck dinner at our student farm, a panel on the biggest issues in our food system given by five faculty members from varying food related disciplines, multiple documentary screenings, and an all-you-can-eat locally sourced dinner at one of the dining halls. (If you go to my school, please check out the Facebook event!!) It’s been very stressful and a lot of work to plan, but I’m really excited to see it through finally!

If you don’t go to my school, click here and find a Food Day celebration near you! If nothing else, try eating real on Food Day!

Should we outlaw deep-fried oreos?

This is the longest I’ve gone without posting! I don’t like it. I have been so swamped the past few weeks, I can’t even tell you. College is hard. Fall break could not have come at a better time.

I encountered a really interesting controversy this week that I wanted to share. See I am fortunate enough to be in this really amazing research seminar where we just get to talk for three hours every week about why people think and behave the way they do toward food, and how we can test it. Well there’s a little more to the class than that, but it’s pretty great. Anyway, this week my instructor brought up that there is a movement to legislate what kind of foods can be served at fairs, like state and county fairs and carnivals, that kind of thing. You know, the places where you can buy funnel cake and deep friend oreos and all that really weird stuff you’d never eat anywhere else.

Apparently the proponents of this movement argue that by allowing these foods to be sold, the fairs are promoting unhealthy eating. The interesting thing is that the researchers in our lab observed that it was mostly healthy weight people that were buying the crazy foods, while overweight and obese people typically bought more everyday unhealthy foods like burgers and fried chicken.

My first thought on this is that this problem is essentially my main internal conflict with eating healthfully. I never want to deprive myself on special occasions from having the foods I know are terrible for me but that I enjoy immensely and know I won’t eat all the time. Coincidentally, the weekend prior to this class there was an apple festival in our town, where all kinds of novelty fall and apple themed foods, most of them too overwhelmed with sugar to be nutritious, were abundant (think candied apples, apple crisp, apple pie, apple pizza). Being obsessed with fall foods and flavors myself, I had to let myself try everything, and even eat a lot of something (the best kettle corn I’ve ever tasted). If I really save eating extravaganzas for special occasions like that, I don’t gain weight and I don’t feel guilty afterward. For me, my health isn’t defined by the exceptions to my eating pattern; rather, it’s defined by what and how I eat (and exercise and sleep, etc) every day. This has been found to be true for most people.

This brings me to my second thought. If you’re going to make a rule that you can’t sell funnel cake at a carnival that people only go to once a year, why allow KFC to sell the Double Down every day? Why let Burger King sell the Triple Whopper? Why let pizza hut sell that ridiculous pizza with the cheese-stuffed crust? The fairs encouraging you to indulge in a crazy-unhealthy-but-delicious food once a year aren’t the problem, my friends. It’s the chains that promote the idea that it’s acceptable to eat those foods all the time.

And like I said, evidently the overweight people aren’t even the ones eating the novelty foods. Would such a law do anything then but deprive people of their one-of-a-kind cultural food experience that is not a habit, but really a once in a while thing that probably won’t have a lasting effect on their health?

Why don’t we try changing the nutrition standards for the institutions where people eat every day? Namely schools; set good habits while they’re young and they’re much more likely grow up with healthy habits, truly only indulging on special occasions. Don’t let a different school club have a bake sale every day. Don’t sell sodas in the vending machines. I think you get it.

I feel like I might be contradicting myself here, and I often feel that way about this topic because I’m so torn. No, I don’t think it’s physically healthy to eat funnel cake. Ever. But I know that for me, my life would be so much bleaker if I couldn’t enjoy indulgent foods every now and then. And it’s not about the healthiness of each individual thing that you do; it really is about everything in combination. Sometimes I go overboard eating cheesecake, but most of the time I binge on broccoli, so I think I’m doing pretty well.

So, should we outlaw fried oreos?