Forty years ago, Christopher Gardner, then a philosophy student in upstate New York, was tired of being asked about his protein sources when he told people he was a vegetarian. He dreamed of opening his own vegetarian restaurant, but first, he wanted to make sure he understood nutrition.
“So I did a Master of Science in Nutrition that turned into a Ph.D. that turned into a professorship at Stanford that turned into millions of dollars in NIH funding to do randomized clinical trials on nutrition,” he says.
Gardner led studies in his field for 20 years, and his findings were consistent: To be healthier, people should eat more vegetables and less red meat and processed foods. But teaching people about nutrition didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
“I would go to medical conferences and share my research, and people would eat chocolate bars while they listened to me speak,” he says.
Gardner: We don’t mean “tactful” in terms of deception, like the way some parents get kids to eat vegetables by blending them into a smoothie. Stealth nutrition is about finding values to drive behavior change that is not related to health.
For example, 10 years ago I taught a class called Food and Society with a colleague, Dr. Tom Robinson, a Stanford pediatrician, where instead of micronutrients and calories, we focused on ethical reasons for eating healthy foods, such as the rights and climate change.
Every year, I’m amazed at how involved these Gen Z’s are. They go home and tell their parents and friends why they should eat less meat and more vegetables. And neither class is really focused on health!
How did you discover that flavor plays an equally important role in encouraging people to eat more nutritiously?
Alia Crum, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has done a lot of pioneering work on mindsets with doctoral student Brad Turnwald. She told me, “A lot of people seem to think that vegetables don’t taste good. I think that’s why they don’t eat vegetables.”
So we decided to work with a campus linguist, Dan Jurafsky, to experiment with new food labels in the cafeteria. Over the course of a single academic quarter, we changed the names of the items plant-based, using four types of labels: basic, non-vilified, presence glorified, and indulgent.
So, in this context, “carrots” are basic, “low-sodium carrots” are non-vilified, “Fiber-rich carrots” are glorifying presence, and “twisted carrots with citrus glaze” are indulgent.
We would never change the food recipe; all we wanted to do was change the label and document how many kids in cafeterias were taking portions and if language helped. Vegetable consumption actually decreased when we made them look healthier and increased when we made them look indulgent.
What other strategies are you using?
One of the best things one of our chefs did was come up with a way to have fun and use his craft to create healthy food that people would love to eat. It started with a “dessert twist” suggested by the CIA. Instead of cheesecake with a raspberry on top, they served a bowl of raspberries with a slice of cheesecake. It is not that we have taken the cheesecake; we simply reverse the proportions.
Now our chefs also do a protein switch and are really into it. Instead of having a big piece of meat in the middle of the plate, they focus on whole grains, lentils, or grilled vegetables. My research shows that eating vegetarian and vegan can be healthier, but these things can be polarizing.
So we don’t get rid of the meat; we only use small strips of chicken or beef as a condiment. And instead of the plant as a side, we will make an incredible fusion of Moroccan, Latin American, and Middle Eastern flavors.
Why do you think delicious food is such an important part of promoting nutritious eating?
As health professionals, we have done a poor job for so many years with this. I remember a couple of decades going to conferences and saying, “You know, there are things that have a lot of fiber.
Let me tell you what it can do for your cholesterol.” So I’d frown and say, “It tastes like cardboard, but it’s so good for you!” I apologize that high-fiber foods don’t taste as good as the foods people want.
What is your hope for the future of nutrition?
I really wish people would cook more so there would be less processed and packaged food, but many people have told me that this is something I need to give up: Gen Z is really into global flavors, but they’re also nice. busy and not that in the kitchen. So I think it’s the chefs from institutions like universities and big companies that will play an incredible role.
The beauty of institutionalized food is that they ask for a lot. When these chefs start asking for more nutritious, sustainable, and delicious food, and many of them start asking for it, the impact will be much greater than that of a person who went to buy a veggie burger.
Right now, we’re at the tipping point of changing social norms when it comes to how we do nutrition, and I really think this will have a global impact.