Consulting, Research and Speaking on Health and Media Issues

Jamie Oliver’s fat chance

bigstockphoto_Donut_1180941-300x225As a public health booster, you’d expect me to like the new Jamie Oliver reality show on ABC. The young British chef parachutes into a West Virginia town that boasts a frighteningly high obesity rate. There’s a new nutrition sheriff in town who’s gonna clean up this place–er, put healthful food on their school lunch plates.

I do believe he truly wants to help. And it’s clear as plastic wrap that cheap, over-processed food is setting up many of these children for premature death. But although Jamie’s food may be fresh, his “I know best” paternalistic attitude is a counterproductive retread. Here are several of his behavior-change blind spots:

Other people should like what I like.

In part of the program, Jamie provided a family with a week’s worth of healthy meal recipes and ingredients, including an array of unfamiliar herbs. He seemed perturbed that, at the end of the week, most of the exotic ingredients sat wilting in the back of their fridge. Why not instead ask the family about their favorite dishes, and provide recipes that take those preferences into account, but nudge them in a healthier direction?

None of us likes to make drastic changes. And if one meal turns out subpar, it’s easy to reject the new approach wholesale. This is especially true for children, who are not only picky about strange textures and smells, but are often more sensitive to bitter tastes. You may need to offer a new food a dozen times or more before a child will try it.

Other people have the same priorities I do.

Jamie was appalled when, after blending and straining a chicken carcass into beige glop, kids were willing to eat the glop if breaded and fried into patties. When he did this demonstration for kids in the U.K., they always backed away.

I had two thoughts: First, hasn’t he ever watched those gross-out kids’ shows (e.g., Nickelodeon’s famous slime), or seen the deliberately disgusting candy some kids like? He doesn’t seem to know a lot about normal child development.

Second, when he asked the kids why they would eat that fried glop, they simply said, “Because I’m hungry.” A not-insignificant number of these kids probably come from food-insecure homes, where they’d better eat while they can in case the cupboard’s bare tomorrow.

If they’re too dumb to get it, add some cartoons.

In a desperate effort to make vegetables appealing, Jamie parades through the school in a peapod costume. This reminds me of “math-made-easy” books that stuff in cartoons and jokes in lieu of a better instructional approach. Kids are smart. If vegetables are so great, why the hard sell?

Scare ‘em straight.

After failing to get the family to cook healthier meals, Jamie shepherds them to a pediatrician. A physical exam and tests reveal that the son is on a fast track to Type 2 diabetes. Everyone is understandably and appropriately upset.

But what are they supposed to do about it? Research shows that unless a “fear appeal” is strongly linked to specific actions that will reduce risk, people will “cope” through denial. They also need the ability and know-how to take action, and belief in their own power to change.

To his credit, Jamie spends some time cooking with the son, showing him how to whip up a healthy chicken stir-fry. But that’s a small step on a long journey.