Faux Your Health: Is this advice?

I don’t know very many people who make New Year’s resolutions.  Part of the reason for that, I think, is that my friends (like, I would imagine, most people) tend to make changes in their lives as needed, rather than arbitrarily waiting for the ceremony tied to the ushering in of another year.  Other friends and family feel that resolutions are rather hollow, made–as they often are–by folks who by February (if not by late in the day on January 2) have forgotten all about what they resolved to do this year, finding themselves swept up instead in the swirling current of life as it always has been.

But for those who do make New Year’s resolutions, particularly those who make the resolution to lose some weight and make healthier choices, January is a boundless cornucopia of tips, tricks, and how-tos from a variety of experts who parade across our media landscape like so much flora-laden floats at the New Year’s Day Rose Parade.

One of the experts who wants to help America “eat this, not that” is Joy Bauer, the resident nutritionist on the set of NBC’s Today show.  Rail-thin and a bit high-strung (early last week she actually recommended that viewers “learn to become fidgety” in order to burn extra calories throughout the day), Bauer performs various functions, including answering viewer questions and, on two Monday mornings a month, inducting people with weight loss success stories into the Joy Fit Club.

Despite the exuberance that Bauer’s first name might seem to connote, “Joy” instead seems rather joyless when it comes to the subject of food and eating.  As a nutritionist, she offers meal suggestions to the audience that take into account calorie counts and nutritional value, but rarely does the potential pleasure of a dish–of making it and eating it–figure into her advice on how to live healthfully and happily.  And that’s a real shame, because in disregarding the pleasure principle, Bauer–however unwittingly–perpetuates the common misconception that the practice of maintaining a healthy diet is a particularly stoic, bland, dissatisfying endeavor.  Indeed, whenever Bauer is on the screen, it’s hard not to think of George Costanza yelling at Jerry, “Have a yolk!  It won’t kill you!”

Of course, one might expect a nutritionist to think first of health and not of flavor when it comes to doling out advice to those seeking to lose weight.  But to think in these terms is to reinforce the myth that those two things (flavor and nutritional value) are necessarily mutually exclusive when in actuality, the opposite is true:  In fact, lots of things that are incredibly enjoyable to eat happen also to contain quite a bit of nutrients.  Think of in-season tomatoes, which need little more than a sprinkle of salt to be enjoyed.  And what vegetable isn’t fantastic when tossed with just a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted in a hot oven until the edges have begun to brown?  Then there are sweet potatoes to consider, grilled marinated flank steak, tenderloin of pork, a bowl of glistening, jewel-toned strawberries, slices of sticky, spicy mango.

All of these are foods Ms. Bauer could have mentioned one day last week when responding to an email from a viewer who worried that she might never be able to lose weight because she “hate[s] ‘healthy’ foods.”  The question itself requires some follow-up queries: What does the viewer mean by “healthy foods,” and what has she not liked about those foods in the past?  If this is someone whose idea of “healthy food” involves little more than rice cakes, cottage cheese, and over-cooked broccoli, then some education is in order.  What I’m getting at here is that there are a million good-for-you foods this viewer could make that would also taste fantastic.  Her question, though, seemed to indicate that she prefers processed foods to whole foods, and that she assumes if something tastes good it must not be good for you.

Joy advised the woman “try a new food every day,” with the idea that she would then “hopefully learn to like” healthier foods.  But such “advice” is really useless, since it is unlikely a.) that the viewer even knows what kinds of “new foods” would be good to start with, and b.) what to do with those “new foods” in order to maximize–and thus fully enjoy–their flavors.  After all, if this is someone who usually eats frozen entrees and canned soups, it’s unlikely that she will suddenly wander into the produce section and decide on a whim to see what she can do with a leafy bunch of kale.  Diet advice fail!

In Bauer’s defense, the Today show allots her a rather small chunk of time in which to share her expertise with the viewing public, so it’s possible she’s simply providing the best information she can given the time constraints.  It is interesting, then, to turn one’s attention to NBC’s hugely popular show, The Biggest Loser, which, with a running time of two full hours every Tuesday, could (in theory) offer plenty of good advice to those watching at home.  And while the shows stars, trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, do offer instruction about how to prepare healthy meals, more and more of the “education” on the show has been ceded to product placement, often in the interest of endorsing some processed food at the expense of a healthier (and, I would argue, tastier) whole food alternative.

Of course, all reality shows at this point are bedeviled by the problem of product placement, with the producers unable to resist such an obvious cash cow, thereby forcing viewers to listen to cringe-worthy dialogue as the show’s participants try to make a blatant whoring of products seem like just a casual conversation about, say, Extra Sugar-free gum.  But the product-placement in The Biggest Loser is particularly problematic because it involves a kind of tacit endorsement from Bob and Jillian, who–in playing both coach and parent figures to the contestants (a group whose collective starting weight seems to increase with every season of the show)–are seen by many viewers as the arbiters of all things healthy.

And so, it is deeply troubling, then, to see Bob suggest (as he did in a recent season of the show) that the contestants enjoy a cup of fat free Jell-o with a dollop of Cool-Whip on top as a sweet treat during the day.  First, it probably goes without saying that Jell-o topped with Cool Whip hardly counts as a serving of food, being as both of these items are merely additives and flavorings held together by stabilizers and preservatives.  Possibly even more disturbing, though, is the idea that someone might think that she would actually prefer Jell-o and Cool Whip to a bowl of ripe berries topped with a small scoop of real whipped cream.  (Never mind that if the berries are in season and fully ripe, you might want to simply enjoy them sliced in a bowl, with nothing else on top.)   Anyone who does choose jello over berries is not only missing out on key nutrients (in the berries and, yes, even the cream), but is also depriving herself of the sensuous, wonderful pleasure that comes from the flavors and textures of these real foods.

In other words, eat this:

not this:

???  Bob, you’ve got to be kidding me.

Michael Pollan believes that our country suffers from what he calls a “national eating disorder,” one in which we cede more and more of the control over what and how we eat to other people–to the industries that provide the food we eat, to the nutritionists and scientists who urge us to incorporate this or that particular nutrient into our eating repertoire, and to the manufacturers of processed foods who go to great lengths to sell us their products. In watching how food is treated by our national media, one gains a keen understanding of what troubles Pollan: “Experts” appear on our morning news programs to lecture us on what to eat right now (I say “right now” because the advice seems to be constantly in flux, changing almost daily based on the findings of the “latest study”).  Meanwhile, we learn that we can have our Jell-o and eat it too (and this information is presented to us as though it is a great boon for our taste buds).  It’s hard not to accept Pollan’s point-of-view that we have been goaded into listening to others rather than…well…going with our gut feeling about how, when, and how much to feed ourselves.  Meanwhile, those bringing us this “information” continue to profit–from the advertising that pays for the morning show’s production, to the product placement that has been weaved into our entertainment programs in an effort to ensure that even those with DVRs get their minimum daily value of commercials.

And in the meantime, Americans get heavier and heavier, increasingly hooked on processed foods and less aware of how to avoid them.  Many of these Americans will resolve to get healthier this year.  One hopes they’ll begin that journey with a bowl of fresh fruit and thereby proclaim there really isn’t always room for Jell-o.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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