Le Bistrot or The Wine Shop

Repositioning Food for Health, Not Pleasure

The impulse to attach health claims to food is growing stronger among many advocates and agencies for food and health policy. The FDA is moving to put nutrition information on the front of food packages. This news comes in addition to the agency’s seven-year quest to define healthy for food marketing claims. The Food Is Medicine movement is attracting government support and billions of dollars of investment. Are we in the midst of repositioning food for health rather than pleasure?

Assuming that we are, how is this working out?

Healthy Eating Is a Relatively New Concept

Mothers have been telling children to eat their veggies forever, but healthy eating did not find its way into our vocabulary until the 1980s. Coincidentally that is when Dietary Guidelines for Americans emerged and became a cornerstone of U.S. food and nutrition policy.

Promotion of healthy eating opened the door for food marketers to sell us truckloads of tasty ultra-processed foods with an added boost from health claims.

Taste and Pleasure Still Come First

Despite all the energy that goes into promoting healthy eating, taste and pleasure still come first when people choose what to eat. Food marketers know it. If a food product doesn’t taste good, it won’t sell. Researchers tell us that food consumption behaviors make it clear that taste is the dominant factor determining food choices.

Price and quality come in second and third. Health qualities are part of that third-place dimension.

Dietitian Carrie Dennett tells us that we are wired to value the pleasure of food. Finding that pleasure in the food we eat is essential to a healthy pattern for eating. It is also essential that food not be our only pleasure in an otherwise joyless and stressful life.

The Food Prescription Fix

We have our doubts that prescriptions of healthy food will solve problems with unhealthy eating patterns. Food is not medicine because it has important functions for providing pleasure and creating occasions for enjoyment with friends and loved ones. Social and economic stresses can make it difficult for food to play these roles in a person’s life.

Prescribing “healthy” food will not fix the social determinants of health that get in the way of good nutrition and healthy lives. Not if we neglect the social and economic stresses that lie at the root of disparities in health and nutrition.

Click here and here for more on the challenges of prescribing food as medicine.

Le Bistrot or The Wine Shop, painting by Edward Hopper / WikiArt

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July 2, 2023