5 Reasons I’m Ignoring Your Healthy-Eating Advice

Eating better to improve health and/or lose weight tops many New Year’s resolution lists. Most of us know our dietary pitfalls—for example, I don’t eat as many veggies as I should because I hate chopping stuff—and what we should do to eat more healthfully. Yet we often don’t.

Once, when I was complaining to a friend about a persnickety, fault-finding dietitian at my daughter’s orthopedic hospital, my friend said, “Who can blame dietitians for being crabby? No one listens to them.” It’s true. We don’t.

In part, our collective shunning of dietary advice is rooted in biology, food marketing, and psychology. Our bodies respond with pleasure to sugar, salt, and fat; food companies know this and create food that is irresistible; and we turn to food for all sorts of inappropriate reasons, such as boredom.

But the dietary advice itself is also to blame for our unwillingness to follow it. Much nutrition advice fails to convince us to change our habits because it fails to acknowledge how we actually cook, eat, and live.

So this is for all you food bloggers, dietitians, and nutrition gurus who keep telling us how to eat better, and are frustrated that we don’t seem to be getting the message. Here are the top five reasons why I’m not paying attention to your nutrition advice.

  1. You focus too much on kale and not enough on apples. The kinds of foods that feature prominently in so much modern nutrition advice, such as kale, beets, quinoa, or Brussels sprouts (all of which I like except beets, which, I’m sorry, just taste like dirt no matter how much oil you roast them in) are either unfamiliar to many folks, or familiar only in our memories of bland piles of mushy vegetables on childhood dinner plates. These ingredients may be standard in the kitchens of foodies and professional or especially dedicated home chefs, but many of us are still figuring them out. Most of the fresh produce consumed in my family needs no introduction and little preparation: apples, pears, clementines, carrots, grapes, berries. But when I read all the nutrition advice out there, I get the feeling this isn’t good enough, because my kids aren’t dipping multicolored pepper strips into homemade nonfat yogurt dip. How about giving me some props for always having a full fruit bowl? My kids don’t like salad or veggies other than carrots and celery, but they have apple or pear slices with nearly every meal, and I’ve decided that’s good enough.
  2. You downplay the time and effort involved in preparing fresh food. I understand that chopping up fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella to toss with pasta or making a pot of vegetarian chili with canned beans is not exactly rocket science. But even a simple meal made with fresh ingredients takes more time and effort to prepare than heating up a tray of chicken nuggets—not a lot more time and effort, but some. If it’s one of those days when we only have an hour between ice-skating lessons and a Girl Scout meeting, then I actually don’t have time to chop, toss, cook, and serve a homemade meal. And any parent of young kids is familiar with those days when hungry, tired children are falling to pieces so precipitously that you just need to get something, anything, on the table quickly. Sometimes convenience foods really are more convenient.
  3. You nitpick. It took some doing, but I’ve managed to get all of my kids to drink milk with dinner, although my youngest will only drink vanilla-flavored milk, and my middle child prefers chocolate (the oldest, bless her, loves a plain old glass of skim milk just like her mom does). We only eat take-out food a couple of times a month. My 12-year-old taught herself how to bake an amazing Kentucky butter cake, inspired in part by her watching me bake from scratch regularly. I feel pretty good about how we cook and eat. That is, until I open up a parenting magazine or the newspaper to find an article bemoaning the fact that so many American kids can’t stomach a glass of milk without added sugar. And another article about how take-out food is ruining our waistlines and blood sugar levels and life as we know it. And another trying to convince me that my kids will love an agave-sweetened oat-prune square as much as a Toll House cookie. And I feel like there is no way I can possibly meet these standards, so I might as well not even try. How about giving us parents a little credit for trying, for paying attention, for serving milk instead of soda even if we’re mixing a spoonful of Nesquick in, for teaching our kids the vast difference between a chocolate chip cookie made from scratch and a Chips Ahoy, and for sitting down to eat with them nearly every evening, even if we’re serving mac and cheese from a box?
  4. You downplay the importance of personal taste. I once read an interview with a doctor known for his holistic health advice. In talking about the nutritional benefits of dark chocolate, the doctor said with a sneer, “I don’t consider milk chocolate to be real chocolate.” (OK, because it was a print interview, I have no idea if he actually sneered. But doesn’t that sound like it was said with a sneer?) Well, I do consider milk chocolate to be real chocolate. I don’t like dark chocolate, though I know that it is superior nutritionally to milk chocolate. I eat chocolate for pleasure, not nutrition. If you love dark chocolate, then by all means, eat it with gusto. But you can keep your chili powder-dusted, sea-salt encrusted, wasabi-infused dark chocolate squares, and your authentically bitter Mayan-style hot cocoa. I’ll take my chocolate creamy and sweet and encased in colorful candy coating, and look elsewhere for my antioxidants. 
  5. You focus on healthy eating rather than good eating. Healthy eating is primarily about nutritional profiles and fat content and calorie counts and glycemic indices and portion sizes—in other words, healthy eating is mostly about what we eat. So if we’re not eating enough of the right things (dark leafy greens and multicolored veggies and whole grains) or eating too much of the wrong things (sugar and white flour and animal protein), we are failing. And feelings of failure are not exactly the best inspiration for adopting new habits. In contrast, good eating is about what we eat as well as how, when, where, why, and with whom eat. Good eating involves enjoying the full range of foods that God has given us and the amazingly varied ways that we humans have invented to prepare them, from simple roasted vegetables or seasoned rice to elaborate dessert confections. Good eating involves teaching our children to take pleasure in their food, to prepare and eat it with those they love, and to be always grateful that when they are hungry, they can eat.  Good eating connects us to our food, our families, and our community. It inspires sharing and gratitude. That Kentucky butter cake my daughter made when she decided to teach herself to bake? From a healthy eating perspective, it was a failure—a pound cake loaded with butter and sugar topped with a glaze made with….more butter and sugar. But from a good eating perspective, that cake was a triumph. She learned the pleasures of creating something delicious from scratch, and then sharing it. Our friend Tom happened to be doing some yard work for us the day she made it, and we left a slice on the front step for him with a cold glass of lemonade alongside. Now that is good eating.

For these five reasons, there are relatively few food writers I pay attention to. Two exceptional writers, Rachel Stone and Catherine Newman, made my list of favorite blogs from 2011 precisely because of their balanced, realistic, and manageable approach to cooking and eating.

The rest of you food writers? If you want me to pay attention to your advice about how to eat better, then stop telling me that salad dressing or spaghetti sauce or oven-fried chicken is so easy to make that there’s no reason to ever buy ready-made anything (nothing is easy to make when you’re scrambling to put dinner on the table during the infamous “witching hour”). Stop telling me that a deliciously simple milk-chocolate bar isn’t “real.” Stop implying that I’m dooming my spoiled kids to obesity by serving them flavored milk.

Then I’d be happy to try your recipe for roasted kale and Brussels sprouts with quinoa. Just don’t ask me to add any dirt balls beets.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Tina Kent

    This is both funny and wise. I also feel confused with complex diet advice and guilty when my kids don’t eat pounds of kale for dinner, even though they will eat celery with abandon.

  • Mary Caler

    LOVE the distinction between healthy eating and good eating!

  • http://www.forkfitness.com pam

    I totally understand! We only have on child, but with my husband working a ton of hours, I handle everything related to keeping our family and house running. I’ve made peace with myself by reading labels and finding the best “convenience” items for our needs. I had been making my own salad dressing, but discovered the Bragg line of dressings that are organic and sugar-free. And the same for spaghetti sauce. Several brands are organic and sugar-free. I’m still looking for a substitute for white bread. Any ideas?

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      We either use “whole grain white” (I like Arnold because it’s soft) or buy day-old loaves of honey wheat from a local bakery, which at $3 are actually cheaper than a name-brand loaf of supermarket bread and way more delicious!

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    I eat all the white bread I want…when it’s a freshly made baguette! To me, that’s good eating.

  • Jen Schaefer

    Uh, the recipe to the cake, please?

    Brilliant, as always. I daresay that this is another way in which mothers beat each other up. If I get my child to eat dirt balls, I’m a better mother than you. I *care* more about thier health. Let’s not talk about the 20 other ways in which I’m not excelling as a mother, because we all have them.

    This is all theoretical, of course. my child lives on precooked chicken breast strips from Perdue and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

    Health is a balance- food, exercise, sleep, love, and a little luck.

    • Erin Roth

      I would add to Jen Schaefer’s list, “grace.” Thanks Ellen for your thoughtful critique. Amen!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Leah got the recipe from a library book but this one looks about the same: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/kentucky-butter-cake/

  • Kate B.

    You know how I despair over M’s diet of “beige” food, but I comfort myself that she at least eats a protein, whole grain pasta or bread, and unsweetened applesauce with a glass of skim milk for dinner. And of all of us in the house, she’s the skinniest.

    You’re on target as always. You know what I hate? Green peppers. Can’t stand them. I cut them out of tons of recipes and I don’t care.

  • http://www.noelfigart.com Noel Lynne Figart

    Okay, I’m a foodie, but about the “it takes too long to cook” thing?

    A lot of that can be solved with knife skills and a crock pot. I use the crock pot a great deal when I’m going to be running around a lot (which is mostly. I have kids and a career). It’s easier. Also, I lived for seven years with a chef, so I learn a lot about how to chop fast. Now, maybe you have OTHER skills you’d rather develop, and hey, I’m not a dietitian and don’t CARE how outside my household eat, but if you WANT to take the time to learn to chop up food fast, you can learn some speed meal techniques that don’t require pre-packaged anything.

    And if you don’t, no harm, no foul.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I do have a crockpot but it doesn’t really help with the issues I’ve outlined here. First, my kids don’t really eat the types of stuff you cook in a crockpot, although if it were up to me, that’s all I’d cook. I absolutely love soups, pasta sauces, braised meats…all that comfort food. But they don’t really (not for lack of trying). Also, a crock pot doesn’t lessen the work, it just shifts it from dinnertime to the mornings. I’m going to resist the temptation to list an hour-by-hour account of what my mornings look like, which start between 4:30 and 5 a.m., in order to prove that I’m not a lazy bum, but suffice it to say that my mornings are packed. Then, once my kids are at school, I’m scrambling to fit 1) exercise, 2) chores such as grocery shopping, and 3) work into those scant hours. As hard as the dinner hour can be, at least if I’m cooking when the kids are around, I can be engaged with them (whereas the three things listed above really require me to have uninterrupted kid-free time if I’m going to do them well and without losing my freakin’ mind).

      I really don’t mean this post as an excuse, but as an explanation of why a lot of the advice out there doesn’t make sense to so many of us. I cook a lot from scratch, I care a lot about healthy food. But there are limits. We all have them. (For me, there are significant physical limits, which I didn’t even get into, but which affect how much physical work I can do in the kitchen.) And sometimes I feel that the advice givers out there either don’t see those limits, or won’t accept them as valid because they don’t share them.

      I’m totally intrigued by the “knife skills” though…That sounds kind of fun.

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