The Secret to Better Health May Be Eating Delicious Food
How one Stanford nutrition expert is rethinking everything he’s learned about how to get people to eat healthier
Forty years ago, Christopher Gardner — then a philosophy undergrad 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 up his own vegetarian restaurant, but he wanted to make sure he understood nutrition first. “So I went and got a Master’s degree in Nutrition Science that turned into a Phd that turned into a faculty position at Stanford that turned into millions of dollars in NIH funding to run randomized controlled trials on nutrition,” he says.
Gardner has led studies in his field for 20 years and his findings have been 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 result in much change. “I’d go to medical conferences and share my research, and people would eat candy bars while they listened to me talk,” he says.
The issue, he realized, wasn’t that people didn’t know which foods were healthier. They just didn’t want to eat them. People wanted food that tasted good. Gardner’s recent research has focused on building a new framework for nutrition that doesn’t compromise on things like taste or environmental sustainability for the sake of health.
He calls his approach “stealth nutrition” — taking health out of the equation and focusing on other incentives for eating healthy food, like ethics and, just as important, taste. Now, through his Menus of Change University Research Collaborative—developed in partnership with The Culinary Institute of America (CIA)—Gardner works with chefs and researchers at universities across the country to serve unapologetically delicious, sustainable food that also happens to be healthy.
As more institutions catch on, Gardner hopes social norms around food will continue to shift, resulting in more healthy people who enjoy eating their food. I talked to him about the history of stealth nutrition, the role of delicious food in encouraging healthy eating, and what he hopes for the future of nutrition.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Elemental: “Stealth nutrition” is a really interesting name, because it implies being covert or sneaky. How did you come up with it?
Gardner: We don’t mean “stealth” in terms of deception, like the way some parents get kids to eat vegetables by grinding them up in a smoothie. Stealth nutrition is about finding values to drive behavior change that aren’t related to health.
For example, for 10 years I’ve been teaching a class called Food and Society with a colleague, Dr. Tom Robinson, a pediatrician at Stanford—where instead of micronutrients and calories, we focus on ethical reasons for eating healthy food, like animal rights and climate change. Every year, I’m stunned by how these Gen Zers are engaged. They go home and tell their parents and friends about the reasons why they should eat less meat and more vegetables. And none of the class is actually focused on health!
That’s where stealth nutrition comes in. As my students internalized the social issues they’re passionate about, they made all the changes I wanted them to. They were eating less meat and fast food. They were going to the farmers’ market and cooking more. All these NIH grants I got for clinical trials did nothing to change people’s eating habits, and yet if I talk about this thing that’s not actually my strength — I’m a nutrition scientist, not a behavioral psychologist — I begin seeing change. So essentially, “stealth” is reframing food not to be just about health.
How did you discover that taste plays an equally important role in encouraging people to eat more nutritiously?
Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford, has done a lot of pioneering work on mindset with doctoral student Brad Turnwald. She said to me, “A lot of people seem to think vegetables don’t taste good. I think that’s why they aren’t eating vegetables.” So we decided to work with a linguist on campus, Dan Jurafsky, to experiment with relabeling foods in the dining hall. Over the course of a single academic quarter, we changed the names of vegetable items, using four types of labeling: basic, absence of vilified, presence of glorified, and indulgent. So in this context, “carrots,” are basic, “low-sodium carrots” are absence of vilified, “high-fiber carrots” are presence of glorified, and “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” are indulgent.
We would never change the recipe of the foods; all we wanted to do was change the label and document how many kids in the dining halls took servings of them, and if the language helped. Vegetable consumption actually went down when we made them sound healthier, and it went up when we made them sound indulgent.
This initial research took place in Stanford at 2017, and since then, one of the authors has traveled to five universities to implement our protocol for food labeling.
What other strategies are you using?
One of the most interesting things one of our chefs did was come up with a way to have fun and use their craft to create healthy foods people would want to eat. It started with a “dessert flip,” suggested by the CIA. Instead of cheesecake with a raspberry on top, they would serve a bowl of raspberries with a dollop of cheesecake. It’s not like we take the cheesecake away; we just flipped the proportions.
Now our chefs now do a protein flip, too, and they’re really into it. Instead of having a big piece of flesh on the middle of the plate, they’ll center whole grains, lentils, or seared vegetables. My research shows vegetarian and vegan eating may be healthier, but those things can be polarizing. So we don’t get rid of the meat; we just use little strips of chicken or beef as the condiment. And instead of the plant as a side dish, we’ll do an incredible Moroccan, Latin American, Middle Eastern fusion of flavors.
It’s such a fun partnership to lead with taste and then have health and environmental sustainability in the back pocket. Not only do the foods taste great, but you’re hitting two other things at the same time.
Why do you think delicious food is such an important part of encouraging nutritious eating?
As health professionals, we did such a bad job for so many years with this. I remember for a few decades going to talks and saying, “You know, there’s this stuff that has a lot of fiber in it. Let me tell you what it can do for your cholesterol.” Then I’d scrunch my face up and say, “It kind of tastes like cardboard, but it’s so good for you!” I’d apologize for the fiber-filled foods not tasting as good as the foods people wanted to have.
So I’d really like to bring some joy and pleasure back to food. This has been missing for so long. It’s a really sad thing in my field, and it’s pretty clearly recognized by everyone I talk to. We’ve made this false dichotomy that healthy food isn’t good tasting, and good-tasting food is not healthy. That’s not true, but we’ve created that perception — and it doesn’t work. People like food. It’s a social thing. It’s a family thing. It’s one of life’s joys. So if you can marry these things — if you can bring taste, joy, and pleasure back, and have it be healthy and environmentally sustainable — it’s a triple win.
What’s your hope for the future of nutrition?
I really wish people would cook more so there would be less processed, packaged food, but a lot of people have told me that’s one thing I need to give up on — Gen Zers are really interested in global flavors, but they’re also kind of busy and not that into cooking. So I think it’s the chefs in institutions like universities and big companies who will play an incredible role.
The beauty of institutionalized food is that they’re just ordering so much of it. When these chefs start ordering more nutritious, sustainable, delicious food — and a lot of them are starting to — the impact will be so much bigger than one individual who went to get a veggie burger.
Right now, we’re at the tipping point of shifting social norms when it comes to how we do nutrition, and I really think it will have global impact.