Healthy Food Is Gross

Your "chocolate-cake look" says it all!

Posted Jan 28, 2015

It may come as no surprise to you that most Americans think unhealthy food tastes better than healthy food. If you doubt the claim, try this little experiment: Close your eyes and think about your favorite healthy food. Don’t take any shortcuts here. Really conjure up your favorite salad or grilled fish! Got it? Now, think about chocolate cake—or whatever treat happens to be your thing.

I hope that exercise made you smile. (Just thinking about chocolate cake usually does.)

I hope it also proved this point: No matter how much we talk about the importance of eating healthy food, people believe that unhealthy food is tastier. And since taste determines what people eat, it’s no wonder we’re experiencing the current health crisis.

(In case you're wondering, there is research that shows that while Americans think unhealthy food is tasty, the French feel the opposite. In other words, there's nothing inherent in junk food that makes us think it's tastier. It's just our cultural, i.e. learned, belief.)

How can we change the unhealthy=tasty intuition? That’s the question two researchers ask in an article recently published in The Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

I applaud the question. Indeed, it may be one of the most important questions of the day. Here’s my answer: Stop talking about nutrition. Why?

Culturally, we have abdicated tastiness to junky food. Here’s what I mean: When we talk about healthy food we “sell” nutrients, as in, “Eat your broccoli because it is loaded with bone-building nutrients.” We can’t really do that with brownies, so when we talk about treats, we talk about how delicious they are. "Creamy. Chocolatey. Gooey. Yum!"

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that nobody ever talks up the tastiness of healthy food. It's just never the first—or most prominent—thing people say. The idea that healthy food can be tasty is almost an afterthought.

Indeed, the authors of the article practically make my point. What’s their first solution for countering the unhealthy = tasty intuition? They're quoted as saying, Find ways to make healthy foods more appealing by improving the actual taste.

Their other suggestions include:

  • Improve packaging and marketing
  • Invest in social campaigns that encourage a sense that healthy eating is “cool” and prestigious

Is it redundant to point out that the only reason to promote the idea that healthy eating is “cool” is if healthy eating has to overcome a stigma? In this case, the stigma that healthy food has to overcome is the idea that it tastes bad.

I recently reviewed a curriculum for introducing fruits and vegetables to preschoolers. There were lots of eye-catching graphics but all of the information—all of it!—centered on how nutritious fruits and vegetables are. What’s the subtext? If you've got nothing good to say, don't say anthing at all.

But imagine what would happen if parents started giving green beans the “chocolate cake look.” You know this look. It's the one where you become animated, your eyes light up and you show extreme pleasure. And then you talked up the green beans the way you talk up the cake. That would teach kids that eating healthy food isn't just the healthy way to eat. It's the tasty way to eat as well. 

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

© 2014 Dina Rose, PhD, is the author of the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books). She also writes the blog It's Not About Nutrition.