Over the last couple of decades there has been an arms race of sorts in the food industry. The business plan of most restaurants seems to be cutting the cost of ingredients and finding labor-saving efficiency, in order to offer more food for less. Supersize is the order of the day. This is not just triple burgers and double French fry servings, but also ginormous entrees and desert portions that could satisfy two or three normal adults. We have largely accepted this as inevitable in a market-driven economy, leaving limited options for health promotion: to get the public to consume fewer unhealthy ingredients, either by policy regulation or by consumer behavior change. Since sugar, salt and fat taste good, it is an uphill battle. To illustrate, most people find a tossed salad to be more tasty with, rather than without a salad dressing. Is there another option besides taking away the joy of cooking and eating?
My daughter is a trained chef, and so she is fun to have around at meal times. Other times to! I like to talk to her about food, whether individual recipes or restaurants, or at the macro level, food trends and the way things happen in the food business. In her culinary training, she learned there are only three things that matter: 1) does it taste good; 2) is it attractive on the plate; 3) can it be sold for a profit? In general, healthy is not a value that is emphasized in professional cooking circles. This would seem to be anathema to health promotion principles, thinking about the long-term consequences of our eating habits. Maybe it is time for a second opinion.
While fine cooking does not spare sugar, fat, salt, all things nutrition health promoters warn about, its redemption is serving size. Fine dining does not offer “all you can eat,” and serving sizes tend to be modest. They are most interested in quality, and compete on that basis, rather than striving to send people out the door stuffed.
I began thinking about this the other day as I was analyzing data from the National College Health Assessment, which was completed on the campus of the University of Louisville (and many other institutions) in 2010. This is a national survey instrument that individual schools are invited to administer on their campuses. All of the questions relate to health issues relevant to college-aged young adults. One of the questions was “Would you like to learn how to cook? About 70% of the students said yes. I found that startling, because we have the stereotype that young people prefer fast food, and are not open to other alternatives. In this instance, cooking skills are an enabling factor in the parlance of health promotion theory; people might be more prone to eat healthier if they had more confidence in navigating around a kitchen. These students seem to be affirming this idea.
Maybe as health promoters we should consider the values of real cooking? The effort to get people to eat a more austere diet, devoid of all the things that people like but that predict health consequences down the road, has been minimally effective. Perhaps we should follow the lead of the culinary artists. Embrace the joy of cooking, just learn to eat modest portions. Advance the notion that more of poor quality is not as good as a smaller amount of great cooking. In addition to having potentially better health value, it offers slow as a value in our stress-burdened lifestyles.
This is not a simple solution to a very complex problem, but might deserve another serving of consideration.