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In recent years America has wrestled with the challenges of providing opportunities for every citizen to have affordable health care. This is an issue that divides the country as we are challenged by “who pays for it?” What few seem to try and address as the real issue is not just providing care for those who are sick, but investing in a plan of prevention. From a cost perspective, this is what will lead to affordability. What is interesting to me is trying to identify what role, if any, restaurants and chefs should play in this effort of prevention.

Let’s look at some undeniable data. In the neighborhood of 60% (and rising) of the America population is overweight or obese. The obesity segment alone is more than 30%. This equates to 78 million Americans whose body fat index is dangerously high. Obesity is a major cause of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer (according to the Center for Disease Control and the American Medical Association). Nearly 200 billion health care dollars are spent each year in treatment of these diseases among the obese. This information is not new; we probably have all heard this, countless times, and in various forms. The irony is that the message is not getting through to a significant portion of the population.

Simply stated, being overweight or obese is a result of consuming more calories than we are able to burn. Thus, we are creating this problem one fork full at a time. Is this obesity the cause of a major health problem in the U.S. or is this still an effect of something deeper?

If we look at the classic comparison of the people of France vs. the people of the United States, we can see a marked difference in obesity. Even though the French tend to enjoy many foods that are high in saturated fat (cheese in particular), their rate of obesity is 1/3 of what we experience in our country. Commonly referred to as the French Paradox, this statistic has puzzled many for quite some time. My unscientific theory points to what I believe the cause.

Concerning food and dining, the French get it and we still do not. Sure, there is a growing population of Americans who understand and focus on the traditions and habits that set the stage for a healthier nation of consumers, but for the most part, we just don’t get it. Let’s go back to the simple definition of obesity: “consuming more calories than we are able to burn.” What habits and traditions exist in French culture that do not within our borders? Here are some factual differences:

  • Americans eat constantly, the French respect definitive meal periods
  • Americans consume, on average, 56 gallons of soda, per capita, per year. Without adequate exercise this would add 24 pounds of weight to an American’s frame. The French consume less than 1/3rd that amount.
  • Americans drive, take elevators, sit, and seem to avoid exercise more than any other country.   The French have no problem indirectly exercising more than 30 minutes (typically much more) every day.
  • The tradition of sitting down to a table for a period of time and enjoying a meal is no longer part of the average American’s day. We eat whenever, however, and whatever we want, at our individual convenience. Americans have lost sight of what the dinner table means. In many cases it is a counter, coach in front of the TV or even automobile. When you lose sight of the importance of space, you skew the meaning of the experience and the control over its value.
  • Far too many American’s no longer know how to cook. Cooking traditions are not being passed down as in the past, home economics (cooking classes) have disappeared from schools, and convenience foods reheated in a microwave is just too darn easy.
  • Portion sizes are out of whack in the U.S. Bigger is not always better. The average male adult should consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day depending on age and activity and the average female between 1,600 and 2,400, given the same parameters. It doesn’t take long for those calories to add up. Here are a few examples:
  • A Big Mac, Fries and Milk Shake = 1,310 calories
  • Double Shack Burger at Shake Shack = 770 calories
  • An Applebee’s Chicken Caesar = 800 calories
  • Olive Garden’s Shrimp Alfreado = 1,190 calories
  • One 12 oz. Mountain Dew – 165 calories
  • One 12 oz. Sam Adams Beer = 150 calories
  • Americans, as a whole, are easily bored. When they are bored, they eat.

Now, some progress is being made through the efforts of Michelle Obama’s campaign for fresh food, exercise and a fairly dramatic change in the school lunch program, but little of this has crept into the daily lives of adults. Certainly, there is a growing percentage of younger people seeking opportunities to run, walk, visit the gym and eat right, yet, over 60% of the population remains overweight or obese and at risk.

What role can restaurants play in an effort to help American’s take food and health seriously? Restaurants are businesses and I fully understand the theory that in order to be successful, a business must provide what a customer wants to purchase. To this end, many restaurants continue to propagate the approach that bigger is better. Large portions are the norm on most menus. Center of the plate is the focus with protein and flavorings to entice the American palate and cooking methods that are an easier foray into flavor enhancement are the primary tools in many restaurants’ bag of tricks. Pan frying, deep frying, use of butter, high fat and caloric cheeses and sauces certainly peak a person’s taste buds, but at what cost?

One of the ways that cooks and chefs can show their real understanding of food and talent for coaxing interesting flavors from dishes is to gravitate towards different ingredients and methods of cooking. Roasting, braising, poaching and grilling are a far better way to demonstrate a cook’s abilities. Using fewer primal cuts of meat and smaller portions, fresh herbs instead of relying solely on salt, building an appreciation for chiles and how to use them for flavor instead of just heat, and using fresh produce as the center of the plate with meat as a complement are just a few ways that chefs can help to change the public’s mindset. It takes time and effort to gradually change menus, but is it not part of our responsibility as professionals? Isn’t part of smart business, doing what is right and purposeful?

There are positive signs as concepts like farm to plate and vegetarianism have become mainstream, moving beyond a fad, evolving into a new standard.   The only way that wholesale change takes place is through public demand and through the efforts of strong, vocal advocates. Educational programs such as those initiated by Michele Obama in elementary and secondary schools will help to modify the habits of the next generation, but chefs can have an even more significant impact today through advocacy and action.

A chef’s menu is a reflection of his or her philosophy of cooking. This is what makes a restaurant unique. Chef’s have a power over America’s dining habits like never before, so taking a stand today through menus designed for flavor, exciting presentation, health and long-term value will be taken seriously.

Helping to fill in the gap of tradition by viewing the meal as a time to bring families, businesses, advocates and adversaries together to break bread and share in each other’s company, will build on those traditions that were once American and are still European. This may be our way to change our world, for the better, one plate at a time.

What do you think?


Harvest America Ventures, LLC