Just last weekend, I took my sons to see the clever and enjoyable animated movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. In the movie, a young boy-turned-man with a penchant for invention creates a machine that converts water into food. He does this to provide the townspeople of Swallow Falls (who fell on hard economic times) with alternatives to sardines, their usual fare. Suddenly, everything from meatballs and spaghetti to hot dogs, steak, and ice cream begin to fall from the sky. As more and more food floods the town, and as the food gets bigger and bigger in size, the town’s Mayor greedily (and disturbingly!) bites off more than he can chew, eats everything in sight, and subsequently gains a significant amount of weight until the machine is destroyed and the town returns to some relative normalcy.
In a funny coincidence, a cartoon and accompanying article in today’s New York Times Dining section depicts my own New York City mayor Mr. Mike Bloomberg’s eating adventures and his work as an advocate for healthier eating habits in the Big Apple. Described in the article as the city’s “nutrition nag,” the Mayor successfully paved the way for the ban on trans fats in restaurants, and the mandatory posting of calorie information at fast food chains. Despite his supposed love affair with salt (the cartoon shows Mr. Bloomberg gleefully adding salt to a saltine!), the mayor has also encouraged people to resist the salt shaker when eating out, and to steer clear of sugary beverages because of their potential role in weight gain and diet-related diseases.
Although Mr. Bloomberg is not at all overweight like the mayor in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the article suggests that he enjoys many of the same foods that fell from the sky in the movie (namely cheeseburgers, hot dogs, steak, pizza, and bagels). For many, especially critics of Mr. Bloomberg’s nutritional policies, the Mayor’s supposed eating habits may beg the following question: shouldn’t someone like the Mayor, who is adamant in his efforts to improve the health of consumers, practice what he preaches? Is it ok if he cracks down on “junk food” but eats it himself?
As a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, I take my role as an educator and motivator for healthy lifestyle habits (which include moderate, nutritious eating habits and regular physical activity) very seriously. I read up on the latest scientific research on food, nutrients, and fitness and do my best, as others in my profession do, to translate findings into practical, real-world tips to help consumers understand the facts and adopt more healthful food and fitness habits. But just like the Mayor, I do not claim to, nor do I eat a perfect diet. I, too, enjoy (and consume) some of the foods and beverages-- namely, hot dogs, steak, movie popcorn, pasta, pizza, chocolate, bread & butter, and Diet Coke®-- that can definitey raise a few eyebrows. Sometimes, I even hear “I can’t believe you eat that—and you’re a dietitian!” But like the mayor, I am at a healthy body weight (incidentally, I have maintained a weight loss of more than 30 pounds since my high weight in high school for more 10 years). I have no shame about my eating habits, and know that while I like certain foods that many may consider taboo or less than healthful, I balance out my indulgences by making sure to consume lots of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and low fat dairy foods. I keep my portions small, and I exercise or do some sort of physical activity (even just walking) every day. And perhaps like the Mayor, when I go overboard or eat something that I know is not particularly healthful, I balance that out by cutting out other treats that day so that my weight stays within a healthy range.
While I can’t speak for the Mayor, I can say that I have learned to truly enjoy food, eat without guilt, and after an indulgence can successfully resume healthful eating habits because I know doing so gives me energy, makes me feel good, and keeps my weight and overall health in check.
It is ultimately up to consumers to decide if the Mayor or other political figures (not to mention registered dietitians and other health professionals) who push for healthier habits in practice or policies are “allowed” to be imperfect, and be real people who eat real food. Being honest about our own eating habits, even when we’re trying to educate and empower consumers when they make food decisions, can hopefully show that we’re human too, and are equally challenged by a 24/7 food environment that encourages excessive consumption. The bottom line is that while not all nutrition policies will be popular with consumers or health advocates, we experts have a right to push for what we think will help the nation eat in a more healthful way. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide what, how much, and where they will eat, and how they’ll use nutrition information (such as calorie counts) to make those decisions.