Dr Brian Wansink: Using Psychology in a New Smarter Lunchrooms Program

31 10 2010


School Lunch the Old Way

School Lunch. Remember the good old days, the tater tots and salisbury steaks, the cliques and misbehavior? These days, school lunch has become a hot topic. With the obesity epidemic, suddenly schools are under fire for serving unhealthy food.

Michelle Obama has made the improvement of school lunch a priority, and across the country, dedicated parents and healthy food advocates are putting their earnest efforts into getting the best food they can on those lunchroom trays. Vegetarian and vegan options are more available than ever before. But the cost of good food is a real problem for cash-strapped schools, as is the psychology of getting kids to pick an apple over a cookie.

Now, there is a new program, called Smarter Lunchrooms, designed by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics In Child Nutrition Programs, which is all about surmounting the hurdles of both cost and psychology, and getting kids on the right track.

Parents could learn from the research that is going into this. You may remember Dr Brian Wansink from his book Mindless Eating  Why We Eat More Than We Think. At the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, he and his associates make a science out of studying why people choose to eat what they do. Over and over, Dr Wansink finds that what we believe about food is easily manipulated with a change in the name, environment, or way it is served. While these kinds of tricks are often used by restaurants to make a profit, they can also be used by savvy consumers to get a grip on over-eating and make better choices.

See my previous post about Mindless Eating: https://robincooksveg.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=561&action=edit

Now, he’s applying all the tricks of the trade to getting kids to eat right.

As Dr Wansink said to me, “It’s not nutrition until somebody eats it. Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics In Child Nutrition Programs will be a game changer.”

Wansink and his fellow researchers have a strategy. They use a technique called Behavioral Economics. Basically, you can’t force anyone to eat well. But people are easily swayed. Banning a food causes rebellion. Giving people two healthy options and a choice between them, like a Mom saying, “do you want carrots or apples?” causes a steep rise in the consumption of carrots and apples.

“It’s better to nudge a student to choose and apple over a cookie than to tell them they can’t have a cookie.” Says Wansink.

Using physical proximity is also useful. Putting vending machines far from the cafeteria, and a salad bar smack in the middle of the room so that you have to walk around it causes vending to go down, salads up. And if you stand in line at a cash register, there are usually impulse purchases there for you to stare at. Replacing those with fruit causes a spike in fruit consumption.

It also is basic economics that if apples cost less than chips or cookies, people will buy them. Schools that require cash for desserts and soda see drops in dessert and soda purchases.

Of course, Dr Wansink has many more creative ideas than just moving soda machines. After years of studying The ways that the names of foods change the way that people perceive them, he has made an art out of titling dishes. As much as we think we are immune to such things, his studies show that calling a salad a “Melange of Baby Greens with Roasted Tomato-Pistachio Vinaigrette and Aged Gouda Curls” will make it worth more than a “Side Salad with Cheese.”

Turning that method toward children takes a little creativity. Younger children might go for Popeye’s Super Spinach or X-Ray vision carrots, while older ones could be into something referring to the Twilight movies or LOL cats. (obviously I am terribly out of touch.)

The Smarter Lunchrooms program is not just a pamphlet, either. Schools can enroll in the program and receive expert help in reconfiguring their lunchroom, and in return, are asked to track the results. It’s interactive, too, with the schools, parents and participants giving feedback, all of which feeds into the study of retail food psychology.

So if your kids are in a school lunch program, you would help them and future children by getting your school involved with Smarter Lunchrooms.

They might even get excited about x-ray carrots.



If You’re Going Nuts, Eat Some Nuts!

24 10 2010

Nature's Answer to Stress

Stressful situations are unavoidable. Try as we might, life is going to throw us some curve balls. For that matter, taking on challenges is an important part of living a full life, and a little stress goes along with making those leaps.

Before you reach for a handful of pills, think about a handful of walnuts, or downing a shot of flax oil. That’s right, a new study showed that the alpha linolenic acid found in walnuts and flax helped measurably reduce blood pressure in people who were undergoing stress. The good fats concentrated in these tasty foods already help reduce bad LDL cholesterol, but now we have another good reason to eat them regularly.

This is especially good news for vegetarians. The Omegas in vegetarian sources are often seen as second rate, much like vegetarian iron and Vitamin D. The conventional wisdom is that the Omega 3’s in fish oil are better, because the ALA in plant sources has to be converted in our bodies into docosahexaenoid Acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). That is still true, but this shows a benefit for the vegan ALA that is unique.

For the study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 22 adults with high LDL levels were put on one of three calorie-matched diets with identical amounts of fat and protein: a standard American diet without nuts; a similar diet, with 1.3 ounces of walnuts and a tablespoon of walnut oil replacing some of the fat and protein; and a third diet including walnuts, walnut oil and 1.5 tablespoons of flax seed oil.

Participants saw a drop in their LDL and resting blood pressure, and when put in a stressful situation, like giving a speech, their blood pressure was measurably lower.

The bonus was that the group taking flax also saw a drop in C-reactive protein, a blood marker of inflammation that is a predictor of heart disease.

So, vegetarians, vegans and especially omnivores would do well to replace some of the fat in their diets with walnut, flax, hemp and canola. Vegans will optimize their conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA by eating a balanced diet, with enough protein, B6, Biotin, Calcium, Copper, Magnesium and Zinc. If you worry that you are missing out, take a supplement. The National Institutes of Health recommends that a person eating a 2000 calorie per day diet should strive for 4 g of omega 3’s, which can be achieved with a tablespoon of flax oil or a scant 1/2 cup of walnuts. Small amounts in other foods do add up, with a cup of broccoli adding .2 g, or 4 oz tofu at .36g.

It’s easy to use walnut and flax oil in your salad dressing, as a bread dipping oil, or as part of spreads or smoothies. The whole walnut eating is too fun to consider a sacrifice, and adding ground flax to smoothies and baking is effortless.

And practice your low-stress, zen detachment when faced with stressful situations. It may even help to think about how calmly your blood vessels are pumping blood, even as you feel that little flutter of excitement. You may be nervous about that presentation, but at least your body will stay calm when it counts.

Walnut Vinaigrette

Kansha, More Than A Cookbook

19 10 2010


I made the Eggplant Sushi

A cookbook is, by definition, a collection of recipes. What makes each collection unique is the overall philosophy and organizing principle that shaped the group of recipes within. There are healthy cookbooks, decadent cookbooks, and cookbooks for just about every approach to food.

It’s rare, though, to see a cookbook that expresses a deeper philosophy, and then really  brings it to life in every step, every dish, and every photo.

Such a book is hitting stores soon, Kansha, Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh (Ten Speed Press $35). Kansha is the Japanese word for an approach to food that wastes nothing, using every edible part to prepare nutritious, beautiful meals, while preserving energy and resources. It also is vegetarian. It’s also true to its Buddhist roots, by presenting the cooking process as a meditation on your gratitude for the food and the work of everyone who brought it to you.

A short word, but a big thought.

And a big, beautiful book, with mindfulness in every recipe.

Full disclosure, I am proud to count Elizabeth Andoh among my friends in the world of food, and to have discussed Kansha with her back when she was in the process planning and developing. At the time, she was making decisions about how to translate traditions from Japan to the American vegetarian.

She succeeded, and in doing so, has created a new classic, and a book that will be essential to any Vegetarian or non-veg who wants a taste of Temple cookery. In the history of meatless cuisine, the Buddhists of Japan have a pivotal role, practicing a meatless lifestyle since the 6th century. Shojin Ryori, which translates as “earnest effort” is a style of cooking that relies on simple, pure ingredients prepared in often laborious ways. Andoh has adapted recipes that will work in the home kitchen, to give you a feel for the real thing.

Kansha also contains Andoh’s takes on macrobiotic fare, which is an eating style inspired by Japanese ideas. She adds some truly traditional dishes that are easily made vegan, and then creates some recipes that bring the Kansha ethos to simple, modern dishes that cooks may find exciting and maybe even familiar.

Andoh’s previous book, Washoku, Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press $40) was also a lesson in a Japanese way of thinking. Washoku brought Japanese ideas about balancing color on the plate to balance both nutrition and aesthetics to the American audience. The idea of balance bubbles through both works.

Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

Andoh is a much respected teacher, and takes the time to describe every step of the process, whether it is washing rice or forming a dumpling. Implicit in all these loving descriptions is the Kansha aesthetic, as you are guided to make an earnest effort, pay attention, and do it right.

Depending on your pantry, you may need to make a trip to a Japanese foods store to make many of these recipes. Luckily, once you stock up on dried kampyo (gourd strips) misos, sea vegetables, Japanese rice, and some seasonal veggies, you should be good to go.

In cooking from Kansha, I was impressed by how timeless the message of frugal, environmentally sound kitchen practices is. The recipes are so mindfully presented that you can’t help but absorb Kansha like a delicious marinade. Sure, I followed a recipe to make a tasty eggplant sushi, and along the way, I thought about the rice, the eggplant that I bought from a farmer that morning, and about using the skin of the eggplant as a kind of mock-eel. I already compost my trims, but Kansha takes it to another level, suggesting that you make crisps from your veggie skins, and finding ingenious ways to serve every little bit.

In a generous gesture, Andoh is also hosting a website for the book, where she will post lessons and share her vast knowledge with us on the web. go to http://www.kanshacooking.com for a taste of that.
And Thanks to Elizabeth Andoh, for creating an entry into this peaceful world.

Shirataki Noodles

Bill Clinton Sets a Good Example!

4 10 2010

We all remember his love of burgers and fries!

Some of us remember a time, a few years back, when Bill Clinton was not the best role model. In fact, wives around the world were probably holding his behavior up to their husbands as an example of how NOT to behave.

Well, that time is passed, and Slick Willy is now a global problem solver, peacemaker, and father of a new bride. His daughter Chelsea’s marriage is credited as the impetus for his latest change. Yes, the age-old desire to see one’s grandkids has motivated the former President to go vegan.

This is no fad diet that Clinton has adopted. After his much publicized heart troubles, he made the small, comfortable changes that post-heart attack Americans do. Less red meat, a few more chicken breasts. But it didn’t take long for his stents to clog, requiring another medical intervention. Clinton faced some hard choices.

“After I had this stent put in, the truth is that it clogged up. The cholesterol was still building up,” He said in a CNN interview. “I had read that 82% of people who went on a plant based diet have begun to heal themselves, and their arterial blockages cleared up. We now have 25 years of evidence”

Clinton was inspired by the work of Caldwell Esselstein and Dean Ornish, as well as The China Study.

He now lives on a diet of beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables. He starts every day with an almond milk, fruit and protein powder shake. He has lost 24 pounds.

I’m sure that Mr Clinton has lots of resources for finding great ways to eat vegan, not the least of which is the means to hire a private chef. Some talented person could make sure that the president has a varied and exciting diet to keep him both healthy and interested.

Let me say, if Mr Clinton is reading this, I would love to show him just how delicious a healthy, artery-healing lifestyle can be. Even with the strict Ornish-style plan he is probably following, which is pretty low-fat as well as vegan, he can have some crazy good meals.

So Bill, if you are out there, don’t get in a rut. That almond milk smoothie may seem like the greatest thing, right now, but you need to shake it up. You used to love yourself some junk food, so we know you like to eat. The best healthy diet has to be tasty and varied, or you might find that even thinking about the Grandkids will not keep you from pulling that motorcade over for a double cheeseburger.

I wish Mr Clinton all the luck in the world, and I truly hope that he will influence a few more people to cut out some animal foods. That is a great example to set.

Tempeh and Wilted Frisee Salad with Rosemary and Capers

Tempeh is a chewier, more nutritious soy food than tofu, and I find that many meat lovers enjoy the texture. Sauteing the tempeh in heart-healthy olive oil gives it some moistness and crispy edges, and then it all gets a zing of piquancy from vinegar, capers, and slightly bitter Frisee. Serve a quinoa pilaf with lots of caramelized onions alongside for a high-protein meal.

Serves 2
4 ounces tempeh, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons  extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 large shallots,thinly sliced
1/4      teaspoon  salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
5 ounces  frisee lettuce, 4 cups
2 large roma tomato,sliced in spears
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

Prepare a pot with a steamer for the tempeh, a folding steamer is fine. Put the tempeh and rosemary into the steamer. Bring to a boil and cover, steam for five minutes. Take out to cool.

In a large pot, mix the oil, vinegar, garlic, shallots, salt and pepper. Place over medium high heat, and add the tempeh. Stir constantly and stir fry until the tempeh is browned. Toss in the
frisee, tomato and capers. Take off the heat and turn the endive in the pan until the endive is slightly wilted. Serve immediately.