Yesterday morning I had the good fortune to catch a little bit of Chris Hayes’ excellent MSNBC show, Up With Chris. During the segment I saw Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame), was on to promote his new film that advocates healthier food choices in schools as a public health initiative. Their exchange focused on issues such as the financial economics of being a foodie, the infrastructure, staffing, and budgetary constraints that push schools to offer less healthy convenience options, and the prevailing sense that people don’t really know what they should be eating anymore.
This last point resonated with me, since I too have recently awoken to the facts and realities of healthy eating. As a long-time high school and college athlete, I grew accustomed to carbo-loading and essentially eating whatever I wanted. Bulk was an asset, and food was viewed by coaches and players as a necessary fuel for weight lifting sessions and two-a-day practices. After the end of my collegiate career, however, my eating habits stayed largely the same. I knew intuitively that this was probably a bad idea, but after five years of eating omelettes or muffins for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and burgers for dinner, it was time to come to terms with the result of these continued eating habits and lower rates (and intensity) of workouts: elevated blood pressure and sitting at the same weight as in college but with drastically different muscle composition. That’s not good. So I added a doctor-mandated nutrition app to my smartphone and my world has been shattered.
It turns out that my average eating habits – especially when unaltered by the health-conscious cooking of my girlfriend – was not just “a bit much”. It was pretty terrible. But I had no idea that I was approaching twice the daily limit of sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol. It was time to make some changes. To be fair, these changes have been very difficult and not always permanent (regression is something to fight every day). But they’ve been illuminating, and pretty humbling. It’s easy to find healthy options once you know what to look for, but it is much harder to choose them consistently.
When Chris Hayes asked Tom Colicchio about why Top Chef is an important endeavor, I was surprised to hear the chef voice the main criticism I’ve always had of people becoming obsessed with the show: the audience can’t taste or smell any of the cooking. How can the audience have any perception of which chef is “better” when the two strongest senses related to food are non-transferable in the medium? The answer, according to Colicchio, is to build a vocabulary for food and cooking that the show can use to impart the dining and tasting experience. What they were surprised to find was that many of those tuning in didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to engage in that conversation, so they needed to include rationales and descriptions in the judging and evaluation of dishes to help create one. In doing so, Colicchio believes, they’ve helped instill a better understanding of and appreciation for cooking among their vast audience.
It’s part of a broader effort by Colicchio and like-minded nutrition advocates to do a public service: educating on quality in food – both in preparation and nutrition. Colicchio voiced a concern that the children of the future may be less-equipped to prepare healthy meals and less-educated on basic healthy living choices than any generation before, in part because home economics courses are no longer a standard component of any public school education (too often axed by budget concerns), but also because national surveys have found that households are spending a lot less time cooking. The regular hustle and bustle of lives, the lower likelihood that a parent stays at home, the increased addiction to television, video games, and dining out, as well as the simple fact that convenience is simply more convenient. Frozen meals actually marketed as TV dinners, the incredible proliferation of fast-food and delivery restaurants, and the bright, shiny marketing of cheap (on sale!) sweets and savories all make poor eating decisions so convenient.
A worrying trend in American life is that this is becoming a more sedentary, less aware culture about nutrition and basic public health. It’s something that I can certainly relate to and that hasn’t been easy to course correct. It’s nice to see people like Colicchio and Michelle Obama using their success to promote better awareness and choices among the public. But it’s up to us to get wise and make choices, too.