There is a lot of noise in the nutrition world. As consumer demand continues to grow for healthier options, nutrition and allergen information, and locally sourced, higher quality ingredients, operators are paying attention. But they are confused, too. Which trends and diets are the right ones to follow?
I asked three renowned public health leaders for their advice on what the industry is doing right and how restaurants can most effectively contribute to public health. All agree that the major emphasis should be on decreasing sodium, saturated fat, sugar and excess calories while increasing nutrient-dense foods, such as lean protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and unsaturated fats.
Here’s what else they added:
PhD, RD, president of Produce for Better Health Foundation
“From my perspective, I think restaurants — from QSRs to fine dining — are doing a great job of offering more fruits and vegetables, either as new entrées or as part of existing meals.
“The most important thing restaurants can do to improve public health is to continue to increase the use of vegetables. Not only will this improve public health, but it will also help restaurants provide the larger portions — but not excess calories — desired by guests.
“Increasing vegetables and decreasing the use of cheese, fried foods, and fatty meats will naturally decrease calories, sodium and fat. In return, restaurants can use less of the expensive meat proteins and more of the inexpensive vegetables, while emphasizing fruit, legumes, nuts, spices, and whole grains to add variety while keeping costs low and nutrition high. For desserts, make fruit the focus. Including chocolate or ice cream in the dessert with the fruit is fine, but just change the proportions: a bit more fruit and a bit less chocolate.
“I believe demand will continue to grow over time, and those restaurants that provide the right balance of healthy, tasty options will ultimately reap the benefits. In the Hudson Institute’s ‘Better-For-You Foods: An Opportunity to Improve Public Health and Increase Food Industry Profits’ report, authors found that those restaurant chains growing their better-for-you menu servings exhibited greater same store sales and traffic.”
Produce for Better Health Foundation is a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. A passionate advocate of the health-promoting benefits of fruits and vegetables for America’s better health, Dr. Pivonka has been integrally involved with the Foundation’s efforts since it was incorporated in 1991. She is a nationally recognized expert on nutrition and the role fruits and vegetables can play to promote better health and regularly interfaces with policy makers, legislators, regulators, academia and industry on nutrition policy and programs.
PhD, executive director of the Anschutz Wellness Center, University of Colorado
“First, I think restaurants have recognized that they have a stake in the nation’s obesity problem. I think the forward-thinking restaurants are recognizing that more and more people are looking for restaurants to provide healthier options while still offering great taste. This challenge — making good-tasting food healthier — provides a great opportunity for creative chefs. Second, many restaurants are beginning to think in terms of making small changes, sometimes not even noticeable to the customer, to improve the nutritional quality of food offered. Third, restaurants are fully committed to providing nutrition information to consumers.
“We have to work both on the supply and demand side. I believe restaurants can take small steps to make good-tasting foods healthier — that is, primarily reducing calories, saturated fat and sodium, while increasing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and unsaturated fats. We will get further by having all restaurants make a few small changes than by a few restaurants making big changes. I think restaurants should be asking how much positive change can be made to popular recipes without losing the great taste. We know taste is key, and we cannot ask restaurants to try to promote healthy foods that don’t taste good.
“At the same time, we need to work on creating demand for healthier items. The community and the media can help, as well. Restaurants that do step out to make offerings healthier should get credit for doing this. The single greatest challenge is obesity, and while we know physical activity is important, so is diet. By helping people make a few changes to eat smarter, we can help reduce obesity.”
Dr. Hill is Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. He is the visionary and executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center on the University’s campus and the director of the Center for Human Nutrition. He has published more than 350 scientific articles and book chapters in the area of obesity, focusing on the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. Dr. Hill is also co-founder of America on the Move, a national weight gain prevention initiative that aims to inspire Americans to make small changes in how much they eat.
David L. Katz
MD, MPH, director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center
“While we haven’t yet reached the point where we can count on highly nutritious food as the default, we have turned the corner so that wholesome food is an option. More and more restaurants are participating in the Healthy Dining Program and highlighting menu offerings for health-conscious customers. My new book, ‘Disease Proof,’ is all about the incredible power of lifestyle practices, including diet, over our health, and even over our very genes. Tools like Healthy Dining Finder illustrate just the kind of innovations we need so more people can exercise that power, and add both years to life and life to years. This is practical empowerment, when and where you need it.
“Taste buds tend to favor the familiar. My research shows that by proceeding incrementally, small changes over time can make important improvements in nutritional quality. This way, nutritional changes in recipes are changing in parallel with taste buds and preferences over time. Better still would be to combine such changes in recipes with public education by health organizations and other stakeholders as well as the media. This way, Americans will come to prefer more nutritious food wherever they are — restaurants, schools, supermarkets and worksite. We can all come to love food that loves us back, but no one entity should be responsible for getting us there. It takes all stakeholders working together.”
Dr. Katz is the director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, an instructor at Yale’s School of Medicine, editor of Childhood Obesity, and inventor of the NuVal nutritional guidance system, currently in roughly 1,700 U.S. supermarkets. He has published nearly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters. In addition, Dr. Katz has an extensive media portfolio. He has worked for ABC News/Good Morning America; has been a writer for the New York Times syndicate; has been a columnist for O, the Oprah Magazine; has been a blogger for the Huffington Post, Everyday Health and US News & World Report; and been named as a ‘thought leader’ Influencer for LinkedIn.