Consumers are confused when it comes to food. A recent Nielsen survey found that over 50 percent of consumers are confused by food labels and a Consumer Report Survey found that 59 percent of consumers do not understand the term "natural" on labels. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, confusion over sell-by and best-by dates leads to a whopping 90 percent of consumers to waste food.
That’s why scientist, author, researcher and speaker Dr. P.K. Newby’s mission is to bring together science, food, health, and sustainability to help eaters translate principles of sound nutrition and green eating to their plates.
“It is incredibly frustrating to watch the world continue to gain weight and suffer from preventable diseases in light of the science of healthy and sustainable eating,” she explained.
Her blog, The Nutrition Doctor is In the Kitchen, features recipes and information on how to eat for health. Food Tank had the chance to talk with her about her work in the nutrition field, her food philosophy, and why you shouldn’t believe everything you read.
Food Tank (FT): With more than twenty years of research experience on everything from how people eat to chronic diseases, what have you found to be the most critical factor in how people view food and make healthy choices?
PK Newby (PKN): Food is often viewed with a cultural lens through dishes that are familiar, honor tradition, and celebrate friends and family. Yet, when it comes down to making dinner, research consistently shows that the main drivers of food choices are taste, cost, and convenience.
For those who do consider health, an interesting 2013 Cart to Kitchen study found that television, magazines, and the internet are the top places mothers get information to help them make healthful choices. That’s concerning because many of those sources are not evidence-based and rely on anecdote or sensationalized stories. While good-intentioned, sources like these can undermine science and often create a distrust in scientists.
FT: You recently coauthored the book National Geographic Foods for Health: Choose and Use the Very Best Foods for Your Family and Our Planet with Barton Seaver. Can you tell us a little about the book and where the idea came from to write it?
PKN: I met Barton, a National Geographic fellow, when he gave a guest lecture in my class. National Geographic was planning to write a book for their 2014 Year of Food and were looking for the right scientist to collaborate on the project.
I was thrilled to participate since it brings in both the individual health and environmental aspects of our food choices, which is the crux of pretty much everything I talk and write about. The book includes photos, cooking tips, and the history of more than 100 foods.
FT: How have you seen people's attitudes towards sustainability change over the course of your career? What do you attribute this to?
PKN: While it takes time for attitudes to change when it comes to issues of such enormous magnitude, like food, the increasing awareness of the problems with our food supply across the entire food chain has created a tipping point. With serious health problems and exploding healthcare costs, alongside severe environmental degradation and climate change, consumers are slowly catching on. More people are taking part in the food movement, from journalists to popular writers and documentary filmmakers, to organizations such as Food Tank, which have dedicated time and resources to this issue.
FT: Can you explain your philosophy of "healthy hedonism?"
PKN: Absolutely! Everyone knows what “health” means, so that’s the familiar part of the phrase. Though I’d like to remind people that it’s not just the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. And true health is about our ability to thrive, not just survive. The word “hedonism” means delight, or pleasure. Nutrition and “healthy” food all too often suffer from the notion that they’re boring, uninteresting or tasteless. The key is making healthy food sexy, and taste fabulous.
FT: You started your blog, The Nutrition Doctor is In the Kitchen, in 2011. What were your motivations behind blogging? Has anything surprised you about the process of engaging the public in this particular medium?
PKN: I started my blog in 2011 as the first step in moving my career towards science communication. There’s so much evidence that can help us live longer, prevent disease and save the planet, but the facts are often lost in the fray of junk-science and sensationalism, rather than scientists influencing the conversation. Communicating science through cooking is powerful since it’s never just knowledge that leads to behavior change.
What’s been a really nice surprise from the blog and my social media efforts is to learn that it does make a difference. Changes in food behavior often start with one person, usually a woman, who then impacts her own family, then her friends, and community. Slowly change happens. My understanding of why people eat the way they do, my experience in the restaurant industry, and my sheer love of eating makes me very different from the stereotypical nutrition nanny who’s focused only on the nutrient composition of food.
The “PK Way” of cooking and eating based on healthy hedonism is slowly catching on.
FT: You mention on your blog that "nutrition gets a lot of bad press." What do you mean by this?
PKN: I begin many of my lectures and talks by asking, “Are you sometimes confused about what to eat? Does it feel like nutritionists are always changing their minds? Would you like to eat healthier but don’t know what to believe?” The majority of hands go into the air.
I’m willing to bet that many of those reading this article will have heard a newscaster or read a food blogger lamenting nutrition. Combine these factors with a constant news cycle and hyped headlines that lack proper scientific context and it becomes a difficult environment for the facts to come to the top.
Nutrition is a science, and knowledge evolves, but what people gloss over is how much we do know about nutrition. This includes things like consuming more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and less soda and sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 80 percent of chronic diseases are preventable through modifiable lifestyle changes such as diet. If people actually did what nutrition scientists have been saying to do, they would enjoy a healthier, longer life.
FT: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone that is trying to eat healthy but having a hard time wading through all the information available to them?
PKN: Nutrition is a science, so you need to make sure your source is evidence-based. That generally means ensuring the writer, blogger, or anyone giving advice should have specific scientific training in nutrition, preferably at the graduate level.