Sneaky subliminal health messages

A year-end review of the headlines, ads and recipes that can negatively influence your healthy lifestyle choices

As the year winds down, we’re in the habit of reflecting on what went well and what could be improved in the new year.  Food, diets, exercise and health are popular topics.  I’m all for making healthy choices easy and practical for everyone.  But sometimes it seems like the Main Stream Media paints an elitist picture of health and healthy food.  What do I mean by that?  Read on.

1. Holiday Diet Doom

This train of thought started last week after I read a thoughtful and well-written blog titled “Here’s why you don’t need to ‘Get Back On Track’ after the holidays“.  It reminded me of the negativity and fear-mongering spread by the Main Stream Media every year around this time.  We’re all gluttons!  You’re going to gain 10 pounds!  Your favorite foods are BAD!  Unhealthy!  Get back on track!  It takes on vaguely religious undertones.  Enjoyable food or occasional indulgences are labeled as sinful; you must repent!

At which point the MSM is happy to publish click-bait articles about the New Years Resolutions you should make to atone for your food sins.  This is the wrong message.

2. Food Trend Predictions

I suspect the year end food trend lists are written and promoted by food companies, food trade organizations and foodie celebrities trying to promote products and restaurants.  Many are variations on a list put out by Whole Foods, which certainly would benefit from sales of some of these esoteric products.

Last year’s predictions included edible flowers.  How many flowers did you eat in 2018?  Or Middle Eastern cuisine and seasonings, such as z’houg and za’atar.  You bought those in 2018, right?  Along with Timut pepper, chicha and craft butter ($$$$$).  And I’m sure you got on the bandwagon for grinding your own flour and using sorghum instead of plain old (inexpensive) sugar.

What’s on tap for 2019?  Apparently pasta made with chickpeas or lentils.  Plain old wheat isn’t good enough anymore.  Instead buy expensive noodles that don’t cook properly and have a strange texture and flavor.  You can put some seaweed butter on them, maybe that will help?  And serve them up with cuttlefish.  Yum!  So trendy!

What’s wrong with a bit of foodie fluff you might ask?  My problem is twofold:

  1. It distracts people from considering simple do-able changes that would improve the overall healthfulness of their everyday food choices.  It’s easy to laugh off the idea of grinding your own flour.  A message to add more whole grains to your repertoire would be more useful to everyone, but sounds so dull compared to buying an expensive grinder and then trying to locate whole grains to grind.  And then using them to bake something.
  2. These kind of messages can leave the average person feeling rather helpless.  “Well, if eating healthy involves grinding your own flour or buying pricey craft butter or eating flowers, then healthy eating isn’t for me.  I’ll order a pizza.

Wrong message.

3. Only Thin People Exercise

Just last night, there was an ad on TV for skin lotion.  The ad featured an impossibly thin female, who may not have been a real person at all, but rather a CGI avatar, exercising on a treadmill.  Whatever it was, it had a BMI of about 17 (woefully underweight).  Which is not unusual.  Most ads for exercise equipment or exercise programs or healthy lifestyle products feature people who are:

  • very thin
  • very muscular (males)
  • young
  • great hair
  • wearing skin tight fashionable exercise outfits
  • flawless skin and perfect teeth

In other words, exercise is for the young, beautiful and well-dressed. Not for all the everyday people who should make an effort to stay active, which includes people of all ages and all body types and weight categories.  Wearing comfortable clothes that aren’t necessarily expensive.  The other unfortunate conclusion: exercise is something you do at a gym using machines.  A simple walk isn’t really exercise.  Even though it absolutely is.

Do advertising agency execs think these images will inspire all the sedentary overweight comfortably dressed masses to get off the couch so they can look like CGI avatars?  If this were true, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic.  Or maybe they just don’t want their shiny exercise products associated with the unfashionably dressed.  Whatever the reason, the message is this: Exercise is for thin fit people who wear the right clothes.  This is the wrong message.

4. Plant-based meals are fussy, complicated and expensive

This is a particular pet peeve of mine.  Given the health benefits of a more plant-based diet, it might also be the most counter productive of the three.  What do I mean by this?  Here is a list of plant-based recipes chosen at random from various websites.  How many of these will you be making when you get home after work and perhaps have a hungry family hovering around the kitchen?

  • golden beet veggie balls with almond sage cranberrry creama
  • pasta shells stuffed with homemade vegan tofu ricotta
  • miso sweet potato pie with crispy onion crust
  • wild rice and garbanzo stuffed mini pumpkins garnished with a scattering of pomegranate seeds
  • vegan sticky sesame cauliflower wings (cauliflower is a bird??)
  • crispy homemade veggie nuggets
  • vegan jackfruit mushroom stroganoff

Hmm, none of the above?  Here’s my point: eating a plant-based diet is presented as an exercise in time-consuming fussy recipes, using weird ingredients, that may not taste good or come out right.  Conclusion of the average person: plant-based eating is not for me!  No matter how many of the headlines or explanations gush about how ‘it’s really not hard to cook your own beans from scratch or make vegan ricotta or clean the seeds and fibers out of your mini pumpkins.’  Recipes devised by people who have all the time in the world to mess with this stuff, or who hire people to do the prep and clean up.  

I’m reminded of the food writer Michael Pollan who thought he was being helpful to the average person by demonstrating that he could go home at lunch time (from his office in Manhattan to his apartment in Manhattan), whip up a foo foo plant-based meal and then go back to work.  What you didn’t see was the maid cleaning up the mess (not to mention doing the shopping?).  And he didn’t mention the fact that, as a writer, he can take all the time he wants to commute back and forth at lunch.  But we’re left to conclude that if we don’t do this we are slovenly slouches doomed to unhealthy eating.  Pass the french fries.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely in favor of plant-based diets.  But I’m opposed to making that style of eating look impossibly complicated and unappetizing for normal people.  It can be as simple as cutting back on your portion of chicken, while adding more potatoes and broccoli to your plate.  Simple, do-able and meaningful to health.  Or as simple as eating a meatless dinner 2 or 3 times a week: pasta with meatless marinara, bean and cheese burritos, vegetable bean soup with cheese and bread, risotto and salad.  Not rocket science.  

A lot of the fussy noise is intended to sell cookbooks of course.  Hopefully it’s not a conspiracy to dissuade people from actually trying plant-based eating.  But I’m afraid that’s the result.  I get all kinds of questions about what plant-based actually means.  The average person thinks it sounds so complicated you need an advanced degree to figure it out.  And I have to add, even my fellow dietitians and other nutrition professionals can’t agree on a clear concise and actionable definition.  So we’re left with veggie balls, cauliflower wings and tofu ricotta.  This is the wrong message!

The Right Message

What would a world without these media images be like?  Ads that that featured people exercising would include people of all ages and shapes, especially people who are not fashion-model thin.  Recipes and meal suggestions for plant-based diets would be practical and use common foods and ingredients.  Food trend lists can still focus on fun or silly ideas (waffle pops anyone?), but would include plenty of meal ideas, foods and ingredients that enhance health in meaningful ways.  And no more of the alarmist warnings about the holidays.  We don’t need anymore stress in December!  Meanwhile you can:

  • Stay physical active.  A simple walk every day, more stair climbing, visiting a gym, swimming laps, an exercise class, training for a marathon.  Whatever fits your life.  And wear comfortable clothes.
  • Eat more foods that are recognizably from plants, whether bread or pasta (made from grains) or vegetables or fruit or nuts or legumes.  Cut back on portions of animal-source foods.  Easy.  If you want to try complicated recipes, feel free, just don’t feel obligated.
  • Enjoy the holidays, be sensible.
  • Trends and predictions might make for a fun read, but don’t get caught up in them unless you really want to try cuttlefish and seaweed butter.
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