Healthy Confusion Essays


Our beloved kale salads are not “healthy.” And we are confusing ourselves by believing that they are. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Not long ago, I watched a woman set a carton of Land O’ Lakes Fat-Free Half-and-Half on the conveyor belt at a supermarket.

“Can I ask you why you’re buying fat-free half-and-half?” I said. Half-and-half is defined by its fat content: about 10 percent, more than milk, less than cream.

“Because it’s fat-free?” she responded.

“Do you know what they replace the fat with?” I asked.

“Hmm,” she said, then lifted the carton and read the second ingredient on the label after skim milk: “Corn syrup.” She frowned at me. Then she set the carton back on the conveyor belt to be scanned along with the rest of her groceries.

[Forget government guidelines. Here’s how to eat better, in 6 easy steps.]

The woman apparently hadn’t even thought to ask herself that question but had instead accepted the common belief that fat, an essential part of our diet, should be avoided whenever possible.

Then again, why should she question it, given that we allow food companies, advertisers and food researchers to do our thinking for us? In the 1970s, no one questioned whether eggs really were the heart-attack risk nutritionists warned us about. Now, of course, eggs have become such a cherished food that many people raise their own laying hens. Such examples of food confusion and misinformation abound.

The United States government once considered butter and margarine as one of seven food groups to consume daily. Look back at other advice that unfortunately is no longer a part of the FDA's dietary guidelines. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

“This country will never have a healthy food supply,” said Harry Balzer, an NPD Group analyst and a gleeful cynic when it comes to the American food shopper. “Never. Because the moment something becomes popular, someone will find a reason why it’s not healthy.”

Here, Balzer used the most dangerous term of all: “healthy.”

We are told by everyone, from doctors and nutritionists to food magazines and newspapers, to eat healthy food. We take for granted that a kale salad is healthy and that a Big Mac with fries is not.


In the 1970s, few questioned the prevailing opinion that eggs were a heart attack waiting to happen. Now they are among our most beloved ingredients. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

I submit to you that our beloved kale salads are not “healthy.” And we are confusing ourselves by believing that they are. They are not healthy; they are nutritious. They may be delicious when prepared well, and the kale itself, while in the ground, may have been a healthy crop. But the kale on your plate is not healthy, and to describe it as such obscures what is most important about that kale salad: that it’s packed with nutrients your body needs. But this is not strictly about nomenclature. If all you ate was kale, you would become sick. Nomenclature rather shows us where to begin.

“ ‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word,” Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, medical director of its Wellness Enterprise and a nutrition autodidact (“They didn’t teach us anything about nutrition in medical school”), told me as we strolled the aisles of a grocery store. “Our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious. I’m all about the words. Words are the key to giving people the tools they need to figure out what to eat. Everyone’s so confused.”

Last March, the Food and Drug Administration sent the nut-bar maker Kind a letter saying their use of the word “healthy” on their packaging was a violation (too much fat in the almonds). Kind responded with a citizens’ petition asking the FDA to reevaluate its definition of the word.

If I may rephrase the doctor’s words: Our food is not healthy; we will be healthy if we eat nutritious food. Words matter. And those that we apply to food matter more than ever.

Kraft cheese slices cannot be called cheese but must be labeled “cheese food” or a “cheese product.” Pringles cannot be called “chips” but rather “crisps.” Yet packaged foods can be labeled “natural” or “all-natural” — what exactly is the difference between the two, anyway? — with little regulation.


Pork rinds are an indulgence, sure, but are they “unhealthy”? They’re practically pure protein. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

Here is a word we think we understand: protein. Protein is good, yes? Builds strong muscles, has positive health connotations. That’s why “protein shakes” are a multibillion-dollar business. Pork cracklings do not have positive health connotations because we think of them as having a high fat content. But pork cracklings are little more than strips of fried pig skin. Skin is one of the many forms of connective tissue in all animal bodies and is composed almost entirely of protein, typically undergirded by a layer of fat. When these strips of pig skin are fried, most of the fat is rendered out and the connective tissue puffs, resulting in a delectable, crunchy, salty crackling. I therefore recommend them to you as a “protein snack” during your on-the-go day.

Given the infinitely malleable language of food, it’s no wonder American food shoppers are confused.

What is “mechanically separated meat,” a standard ingredient in the turkey bacon and chicken sausages popularized because of our low-fat love? “Do you know what that is?” a grocery store owner asked me. “They basically put poultry carcasses in a giant salad spinner.” Whatever winds up on the walls of the spinner in addition to meat — bits of cartilage (protein!), nerves (I have enough of my own, thank you), vessels, bone fragments — is scraped off and added to the mixing bowl. “Mechanically separated meat” engages our imagination only when someone attaches new words to it, such as “pink slime.”


The label might tell you it’s “enriched,” but it doesn’t tell you that the bread’s ingredients were first stripped of their natural benefits. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

“Refined” is another critical food word. Generally, refined means elegant and cultured in appearance, manner or taste, or with impurities removed. Yet that is what food companies have been calling wheat from which the germ and bran have been removed, leaving what is in effect pure starch, devoid of the fiber, oils, iron and vitamins that make wheat nutritious.

That’s not refined, Sukol said, “that’s stripped.” Flour stripped of the nutrition that makes it valuable to our bodies but reduces shelf life.

Because it has been stripped, we must “enrich” it. “Enriched.” “Fortified.” Good, yes? To make rich, to make strong. Food companies added the iron they took out during the refining process, but not enough of what we need. “Refined flour — this resulted in B vitamin and iron deficiencies,” Sukol said, “so they added vitamins and iron. And what do they call that? Enriched and fortified. But they forgot to add folate, vitamin B9, until the 1990s.”

What we don’t know, Sukol said, is how those additions, not to mention the diglycerides and sulphates, combined with the lack of fiber, will affect our metabolism in the long run. So far, she said, “it has resulted in diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”

We will be healthy if we eat nutritious food. Our food is either nutritious or not. We are healthy or we are not. If we eat nutritious food, we may enhance what health we possess.

This is not a judgment on what you choose to eat. If you hunger for a cheese product grilled between bread that’s been stripped of its nutrition, along with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup (made with tomato paste, corn syrup and potassium chloride), fine. It was one of my favorite childhood meals. Just be aware. Buy fat-free half-and-half if that’s what you like; just know what it is you’re putting in your body and why.

Because, and this is the judgment call, fat isn’t bad; stupid is bad. And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.

Ruhlman is the author of many books, including “Ruhlman’s How to Roast” and the recent collection of novellas “In Short Measure.” He blogs and can be reached at ruhlman.com. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that refined wheat has had the endosperm and bran removed. In fact, the germ and bran have been removed, and the endosperm remains.

As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.

Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.

“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”

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Poke holes

The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.

“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?

“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”

Critique your own arguments

Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.

“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”

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Fine, use Wikipedia then

The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.

“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”

Focus your reading

Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.

Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.

You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.

“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”

There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.

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Look beyond the reading list

“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”

And finally, the introduction

The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.

“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”

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