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Can Chefs Address Obesity?

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Ever since First Lady Michelle Obama chose eliminating childhood obesity in a single generation as her primary goal, this health care epidemic has become a hot topic among chefs. With obesity rates tripling since 1980, more than two thirds of adults and one third of children in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese. Do chefs have a responsibility toward addressing this imminent problem?

Obesity is one of the leading causes of disability, mortality, and health care costs in the United States and is linked to numerous ailments and diseases including cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart failure, asthma, and more. Lack of exercise and access to affordable healthy food are named as the top two reasons for this national epidemic.

First Lady Urges Chefs to Help Schools Get Healthy

Ms. Obama recognized the vital role chefs can play with her Let's Move campaign by encouraging chefs to adopt a school and work with teachers, parents, and administrators to educate children about health and nutrition. Aside from creating good-tasting and healthy recipes for their breakfast and lunch programs, some other ways for chefs to make a change at schools include planting gardens, teaching cooking classes, and creating a cookbook of healthy dishes submitted by the school community. These approaches are working well with school children--they're a captive audience. But when it comes to restaurants where patrons are free to choose what they'll consume, can chefs continue to positively affect obesity rates?

Do Healthy Dishes Compromise Flavor?

The amount of money Americans spend on fast food every year has jumped from $6 billion in 1980 to the most recent estimate of $110 billion--many are consuming this form of extremely caloric food on a daily basis. With disease rates and health care costs skyrocketing, chefs are undeniably in a position to help by offering the public healthier choices.

For some chefs, flavor is the bottom line--dishes often taste better with twice the salt and butter. Many others use profit as a way to decide what's on the menu, and selling unhealthy food is often more profitable. In order to find out chefs' opinions about incorporating lower-calorie options in their menus, some university researchers surveyed a group of chefs. The Obesity Journal published an article documenting the results.

According to chefs in the study, the main obstacles to offering healthier foods are that food advertised as low-calorie doesn't sell well, is more expensive to make, and requires more training of staff to prepare the new foods.

Even though most chefs agreed that taste is paramount when it comes to the success of selling low-calorie food, they also concurred that they could reduce calorie content by up to 25 percent without consumers noticing. The chefs concluded that they would have more success by reducing calories rather than portion size.

Top Chefs Fighting Obesity

Some chefs have come up with other ways to affect change. Top chef Jamie Oliver has used his success to promote his Food Revolution campaign. One aspect of his mission is his community kitchen--he teaches local people how to cook from scratch with fresh, unprocessed ingredients.

You don't have to be famous to make a difference. Chef Anne Gallagher of New Milford, Connecticut co-founded the Plow to Plate program. This program brings farm fresh food to the New Milford hospital dining facilities.

While every chef must make up his or her mind about what kind of food to prepare and offer to the public, the rate of obesity and its devastating affects on the population's health is a compelling reason to rethink the philosophies and values that drive what you put on the table.

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