Foodie Underground: Dr. Marion Nestle on the Complexity of Food Issues

ColumnDr. Marion Nestle weighs in on new food guidelines and the complexity of food issues.

Doritos, gooey butter cake, and deep fried twinkies – even though we all know that we should be eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting out all that bad stuff, we’re still living in a society desperately struggling with obesity, and very often, putting the wrong thing on our plate.

Resisting temptation has in fact been called the “greatest human strength,” which is why that basket of fries looks so good, even though you know better. But in a developed culture, shouldn’t rationality win over temptation? Shouldn’t we reach for the broccoli instead of the potato chips? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Throw a dash of socioeconomic issues, a handful of agribusiness subsidies and a pinch of our obsession with flashy marketing and you have a recipe for a broken food system that’s doing some serious harm.

The best way to ensure people eat well? Guidelines of course. What we can’t decide for ourselves, we can at least have other people tell us what to do.

Remember the food pyramid? Earlier this summer, the federal government launched MyPlate to replace the old daily intake suggestion. As the name indicates, it’s a plate; a plate full of the perfect combination of fruits, vegetables, protein and grains to keep you healthy.

But maybe that was a little too simple. Last week the Harvard School of Public Health came out with their own version of a plate, a new and improved version with plenty more specifics. It tells us to to use healthy oils like olive and canola and that we should go for whole grains instead of white bread.

But is this really the solution to our eating woes? What about all the other aspects that are important to food culture? Things like community, sitting down to eat instead of standing, eating fresh foods instead of processed and buying produce from your local farmer.

Guidelines are great, but I often wonder if there’s simply something wrong with how we’re wired when it comes to thinking about food, that we’re not looking at the bigger picture. When was the last time you saw a Frenchmen referencing dietary guidelines while cooking a meal? Never, and that country certainly knows a thing or to about eating well and staying healthy.

Forget my opinions though; in matters of food issues, you have to go to the professionals. I caught up with Dr. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, professor at New York University and one of the leading voices on what we eat, how we eat it and the system behind it. She graciously took some time to answer a couple of questions on the new Harvard Healthy Eating Plate, and while I was at it, I asked the ultimate question: what’s the one thing we can all do to improve the food system? Here’s what she had to say:

When USDA’s My Plate came out in June, you were fairly positive to it. Has that attitude stayed the same or has it changed? Why?
It could have been a lot worse and its emphasis on vegetables is a step forward.

What do you think the new Harvard plate does better? Are there any areas where you find it flawed?
It’s better in some ways (“healthy”) but still includes the nutritionally incorrect “protein” category (all unprocessed foods contain some protein and dairy and grains contain a lot). I don’t think it’s helpful to exclude whole categories of foods (dairy, for example) and the emphasis given to oils is confusing.

Someone on your website made a comment about USDA’s My Plate reaching a larger demographic because it was a simpler, more marketable image. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
The strength of a simple image is that it is adaptable to the way people actually eat.

If you made your own diagram, how would it look?
I don’t think the complexities of healthful diets are amenable to simple images. Most Americans would be healthier if they ate less overall but ate more vegetables and didn’t eat too much junk food. That pretty much sums up nutritional advice but I wouldn’t know how to illustrate that.

When you look at food politics, do you think moving forward is going to come from a top down (more regulation, etc.) or a bottom up approach (more farmers markets, smaller organizations doing their part)?
It’s totally bottom up, grass roots, democracy. That’s why I like it.

Do you think that simplifying foods down to this level is detrimental because it keeps us from looking at food with a more holistic approach? Where does the discussion of organics and agriculture come into play?
Food production and consumption are inextricably linked. If we want people eating more vegetables, we need to change our food production system.

When it comes to food politics, what do you think is one of our main obstacles?
Permitting corporations to fund election campaigns. That’s the source of corruption in American politics. If we elected uncorrupted officials, they might be able to make decisions based on public health, rather than corporate health.

If people could do one thing every day to improve the food system, what would it be?
Vote with your fork. Every time you make a food choice, you are voting for the kind of food system you want. More voting for sustainable, local, organic would be game changing. It doesn’t have to be 100% one way or the other, just more. But I also think people have to vote with their votes. Join organizations, write representatives, run for office!

What do you think? Are campaigns like MyPlate going to improve our eating habits or are they too simple? What do we really need to be doing to change our food system? Answer in the comments below.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Harvard Health Blog, MyPlateFood Politics

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.