This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Monica Reinagel.
In Monica’s words: I’m a licensed nutritionist with a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition. I also went to culinary school. But long before all of that, I went to music school and studied to be an opera singer–which is what I spent the first half of my professional life doing. (Hence my alter-ego, The Nutrition Diva)
These days, I spend most of my time writing and speaking about food and nutrition. More information about my keynote speeches is available through the Macmillan Speakers Bureau. In addition to this blog, I have a weekly nutrition podcast, a blog on The Huffington Post, a handful of books, and am a regular commentator on WYPR-FM and WBAL-11 in Baltimore. I even still manage to squeeze in the occasional singing gig. On days off, you’re likely to find me cooking, gardening, playing tennis, or reading on the porch. I live in Baltimore, MD.
The Slim Is Simple.org Non-Profit Nutrition Education Effort
Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor here back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Very, very excited about today’s show because we have one of the premier podcasters in the world joining us. A licensed nutritionist with a Masters in Science, in human nutrition, a speaker with the Macmillan Speakers Bureau, a blogger on the Huffington Post, a popular author, someone who actually has a singing career as well, may be we can get into that a little bit. Otherwise, known as the Nutrition Diva on Social Media and on iTunes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have none other than Ms. Monica Reinagel. Monica, welcome to the show.
Monica: Wow Jonathan, that’s quite an introduction, I must expect to hear the applause sound effect.
Jonathan: Where is the applause-o-meter when you need it?
Monica: I am looking around wondering who you are describing, I guess it’s me.
Jonathan: Monica, I wanted to give that introduction not only because you deserve it, but also because one thing I have really enjoyed about your work and about our previous conversations is about this concept and your brand does this so well of health not being a burden, but rather health being a blessing, health being something that can be simple and health being something that can be empowering and helping us to communicate the message of health not less so to the 1% that already get it, but making it accessible and fun for the 99% who really, really need it.
Monica: There is so much to talk about and I feel like no matter where you are entering the conversation, there is something that can inspire you that can motivate you to make better choices and yes I love that idea and Jonathan, you and I have talked about this before offline about that idea of extending the conversation to include people who might not wake up in the morning thinking about how many grams of fiber they are going to have for breakfast, they would really benefit from getting a little bit more excited about nutrition and food choices.
Jonathan: Monica, one thing that I think you can add such great insight to because you are a content powerhouse. Folks, I would highly recommend checking out Monica’s website nutritionovereasy.com. She is literally…it’s like a freaking Encyclopedia Britannica and in order to in some ways keep the milk churning, to keep coming up with interesting information about nutrition. Sometimes we have to talk about isolated things like fiber or intermittent fasting or this or that or this supplement and sometimes that can make it seem like this is a complicated thing, but in reality it is really not that complicated, but if it is not complicated, in some ways we run out of content to cover, so there is a bit of a paradox there. How do we cross that chasm or bridge that gap?
Monica: I think that there is an interesting principle that applies here, may be you are familiar with, it is called Pareto principle and it applies to lot of different things that in this context it means that often you get about 80% of the benefit from the first 20% of the effort and I feel like when people start to try to make changes to their diet, it is that first effort produces enormous results and then if they get hooked and they want to go further, yes they can continue drilling down and getting more and more specific and incrementally improving their nutrition status, but I think it is that first step that in some ways is the most important.
I can be a little bit of a nutrition wonk; I get interested in these really kind of esoteric questions that people bring up just from the point of scientific curiosity. I am interested in learning how the body works, how our bodies interact with food and the environment and all of that but I think it is great to always kind of come back to that it is basics that make the biggest difference, just really simple things that everybody can focus on.
I sometimes get teased because I am always telling people to eat their vegetables which seems like such a frumpy old thing that your grandmother would say, but I really feel like if you are going to focus on one thing, one or two things, that would certainly be one of them, just by making an effort to eat four or five servings of vegetables everyday, all kinds of great things cascade from that without you having to know the name of every individual antioxidant in those vegetables.
Jonathan: Absolutely Monica, I love that concept of the Pareto principle or sometimes I refer to it as big versus small levers, like will taking supplement X or powder Y help you may be that’s a really small lever, will eating more vegetables help you? Yes, and that’s a gigantic lever like the amount of effort, the return on investment there or for getting better sleep or for drinking more water or just simply ensuring you are getting a more nutrient dense intake of foods, those are the big levers, right?
Monica: Yes, I totally agree. For those who want to spend their lives talking about nutrition and going down these little rabbit holes, is the oxalic acid in my green tea interfering with iron absorption, like okay back up a second. It is all part of a larger conversation, but as you and I have chatted before Jonathan, I think that we want to be sure that we are continuing to reach out to people who are already, it is easy to preach to the choir and when you talk about levers, there are levers in our individual lives and bodies, but then there is also levers on the population level and if we are looking to move the levers on public health then yes, we need to make sure that we are spending a lot of our energy reaching out to folks who are still eating 10 or 12 times a week in fast food restaurants and help them make it imaginable for them to make a shift in that pattern.
Jonathan: Monica, in terms of how we can do that and I am going to fall back into what limited formal training I have in this world and that is a degree in economics and I am an economist at heart kind of, I am a lot of different things at heart, but in some ways I feel that eating at a fast food restaurant for example the day that a nutrient dense delicious meal is less expensive than a hamburger and fries is the day this becomes widely adopted and it also seems like people say well that’s just not possible, well it is, right? Our government does things that I don’t want to turn this into a conspiracy conversation, it is not a conspiracy theory, it is a fact, we subsidize the production of certain plants and certain animals and not of other plants and animals, what do you think are the policy wide food regulation changes that could be made to help make eating nutrient dense whole foods easier and more mainstream?
Monica: Well I think that cost is definitely a factor and especially people who don’t have a lot of money to spend on food, they are going to be looking for most calories for the fewest dollars, but I think that in your sort of fantasy world where that nutrient dense meal at McDonald’s is cheaper than the value meal with extra large price, it is only half of it because there is also habit that we formed. People have come to prefer foods that are high in salt, high in sodium, high in sugar, high in fat and there are some biological reasons that were kind of predisposed to develop those preferences, so I think…not to rain on your parade but I think that changing the policy and trying to attack a sudden economic angle is really worth pursuing.
It’s probably not going to be the entire solution because in a way we have really trained our brains to respond to certain stimulus and it is going to be hard, quite frankly I don’t want to be pessimistic about it but I think it is hard to get people to shift from those dietary patterns if you make it cheaper because there are some pretty heavy duty, just preference is involved [crosstalk 09:10] that food and we get used to it. So, they also have to change habits, but to answer the question you actually asked, yes it seems so simple where we say why does not my government subsidize healthy foods instead of unhealthy foods that is just a no brainer and I do think that that’s a big part of the problem, but I don’t want to underestimate how complex this problem has gotten and how many deep roots it has into various sectors at people’s well being, there is all kind of things about as a way to support what used to be the primary profession in America which was agricultural workers, farmers, that’s how most people in this county used to make their living and so I guess it makes sense at one point that the government to support those farmers with policies that helps them weather changes in market price and [inaudible 10:07] weather problems.
It is one of those things where it could be that each decision in this chain of events made at certain logic at the time but now we look back on the accumulated impact to all those decisions. We look at our farm bill, we look at our subsidizing programs and we say wow, this really produced some really very unintended consequences, but unrolling that I don’t want to over simplify how difficult that is, I do wish that our lawmakers could get a little bit more ambitious about solving this problem about balancing the needs of our farmers to be protected, to be supported with the needs of our country to have a healthy population, feel like they could probably do a better job, but I also want to be sympathetic complexities of this. I feel like in our world, yours and mine Jonathan, we can run social media say ‘oh the farm bill and big ag…congress is in their pockets’ and be really sort of harsh and may be overly simplistic about what those solutions involve that doesn’t mean that we should not continue to push for that.
Jonathan: Absolutely and Monica, I think there is two important points here and one is certainly agreeing with you on the principle of necessary and insufficient, so it seems like the economic play is necessary, but it is insufficient, certainly cigarettes are very expensive and very taxed, people still smoke, so the idea that making something expensive will get rid of the problem certainly does not solve anything and certainly that’s saying just make all food more expensive, that wouldn’t help anyone.
So this is a necessary but insufficient approach of course, personal responsibility comes into play. The question that I have though is it seems like a lot of the arguments that people on more of a policy public health level make could have and undoubtedly were made about the tobacco industry before let’s say cigarettes were regulated in any way, shape, or form. Cigarettes used to be advertised on television as healthy for you and there was a tobacco research institute and Coke just founded the sugar research institute for lack of better terms.
How is this different and I am going to just caveat that with one quick thing. I think there is a false dichotomy that people make and that’s well you have to eat, so it’s more complicated because you don’t have to smoke. I think that’s a false dichotomy because what that’s really saying is we do have to breathe, that doesn’t mean we have to breathe in smoke filled air and we do have to eat, but that doesn’t mean we have to eat genetically modified grains. So, we absolutely have to eat, but that doesn’t mean we have to eat certain things. What are your thoughts?
Monica: I think you made a great point in terms of certain things being helpful but not the entire solution and so we can try to implement economic policies. I lived in Germany for many years, a long time ago, back during my singing career that you eluded to and while I was there I lived in Bavaria, which is where they drink beer for breakfast, you just drive through the hops fields and the beer in Bavaria is really…I have never quite gotten over it it was so amazing. But while I was there they passed a law saying that if you are in a tavern, in a bar, there had to be a nonalcoholic beverage available that was at least as cheap as the beer, in other words, they didn’t want people ordering another beer just because it was the cheapest thing that they could order.
If you wanted to have a mineral water or sparkling water or juice or something instead, they didn’t want that choice to be counter incentivised by the price, I thought that was a very interesting kind of illustration of what you are talking about, we have to make that healthy choice at least economically viable, but I think that there is also, we have to change opinion and that I am sort of encouraged by some of the things that are beginning to happen in school system.
I live in Baltimore, Maryland, which is a very urban, inside the city limits, very low socioeconomic, average income, our city schools are very poor and under resourced, it is just that but we all see the wire right. It is all true, but there is some really excited things going on at the Baltimore public school system where they are clearing lots in the middle of these blighted neighborhoods in the cities that happen to be around these poor [indiscernible 15:01] elementary schools and they are taking the kids out there and they are starting urban gardens, and they have been so creative and so loving about the way they have integrated this into their curriculum, think of the things that you can teach an elementary school child in the act of growing a garden.
You can talk about climate, you can talk about biology, you can talk all kinds of things and you can also help these kids who live in neighborhoods where you buy your food at a convenience store because there is no grocery store you can easy access. They live in food desserts, and these kids for the first time actually see a vegetable coming out of the ground and can get really excited about it and how do you get a kid excited about eating a green bean, you let them grow it, you let them water it, you let them pick it, you teach them how to cook it and there is no longer any conversation about whether they want to eat that green bean, they cannot wait to eat that green bean.
So, I see these programs, not just the little pilot program that gets a little spot in the evening news making a difference, but I see them actually catching on and rolling out these programs, so that they are touching more and more kids. More and more kids are having this experience with their hands in the dirt, they are growing foods that are then being vended to the school cafeterias and distributed within their communities on food trucks and things, I think those kinds of programs are the sort of…what was that military thing where the battle for the hearts and minds?
Jonathan: Absolutely yes.
Monica: Combined with the smart economic policy choices do have the potential to move that lever and I think they are starting in the right place. You have to catch kids young before their habits are fully formed and kind of inculcate these experiences, these values, these appreciation, and then I will wait for that generation to grow up, but at least we have started and that actually may be I am Polly Anna but that gives me hope when I see these intercity school kids tilling their little their fields, and walking through their cafeteria lines and seeing the salads and knowing they grew some of that. I feel like that has the power to change things.
Jonathan: Monica, that is such a profound story and I think you are exactly right and it reminded me, I jotted notes down frantically while you were talking because I think it also and I am going to really wax philosophical here so feel free to reel me in if I go too far of the reservation.
Monica: It is your podcast.
Jonathan: You mentioned kids getting their hands in the dirt and that inspired me to think of getting down to earth literally, like we are especially with the youngest generation gen-Z, there is so much in the digital world. Again, I have a day job at Microsoft, so I am all about digital, I am all about technology, but at the same time, there is a lot of things like in the digital realm things were immediate, things are quick, there is a big immediate gratification play going on and in the real world if you want to grow a carrot, you cannot grow a carrot in one day, there is nothing you can do to grow a carrot in one day. It takes time and it takes patience and it takes deliberate action and if we can actually help people to get their hands literally dirty and to come down to earth literally and have that more intimate relationship with natural real analog processes. I wonder if that could actually have a pretty profound societal change beyond just health, but even more into mental health, what do you think?
Monica: I think so and carrots are terrible example because they do take forever to grow and I know my own little kitchen garden here and when you are working with kids I think that you pick the stuff that comes to harvest a little quicker; radishes that are ready in three weeks or sprouts that they can eat in three days, just to set the hook a little bit, but no I think you make a great point that when we take our urban spaces and dedicate more of them green space and then dedicate some of that green space to actually producing food, it just reconnects us to our environment.
It helps us see our landscape, our cityscapes are little bit different as place where life needs to be supported and there is enormous benefits. Not everybody has…I have like a little 100 square feet garden that I have carved out of my yard that I grow food in it and there is got to be the most expensive possible way to produce a bowl of organic letteuce in the world and the most time consuming and the reason I do it anyway I will be a great farmers markets, I can go down and buy organic for less than what I spend on garden toys. The reason I do it anyways because the time that I spend out there it is great stress relief, it is great physical activity. I am out in the sunshine getting my vitamin D and I see my neighbors because I am out there in the weekends, poking around my garden and when they walk by with their dogs, with their babies they stop to see to chat, it connects me to my community in all kinds of ways that are sort of tangential, but central to that experience.
So okay I am yuppie and I have a little kitchen garden here and I want to make sure that we don’t make this into an elitist exercise and that’s why I keep coming back to the these kids when they are out in their neighborhoods next to their schools telling their little fields to the people and those communities say look around those schools, see those little people and see what they are doing and see those little plants and they are reminded too, okay they live in may be in sort of blighted urban neighborhood, but there is life here and there is community here and there is young living things to be nurtured whether it is a bean plant or a kindergartener, I think it does bring communities together, but wow now you have got us both sounding awfully philosophical we need to get Alice Waters on the line.
Jonathan: Let’s actually keep it going because what you were just talking there it inspired circling back to what we talked earlier about big levers and when we talk about health on a more macro perspective in terms of the individual like we are not talking about whether you have six-pack abs, we are talking about whether or not you are happy, it seems like really this relationship with food and understanding and enjoying food, again there is almost a different relationship.
For example, someone goes through a drive-through at McDonalds and unconsciously shoves a Big Mac in their mouth while they are driving, that is a very different relationship with food than sitting down and consciously chewing food and in some ways, again I am going way off the plantation here, but I think it is analogous to go into a bar, having a one night stand versus nurturing a deep meaningful relationship with another person, that deep meaningful relationship with food, forget about from a biological nutrition perspective, I think may be we have lost just a lever in terms of just overall happiness with life and may be I went a little far out there, but what do you think?
Monica: Well I think that we also have to remember that it is a luxury to have that time and that space to develop and nurture that relationship and that it is possible to make excuses for taking the easy road out, but I do have a lot of sympathy for parents who are working, it is very difficult for them. I see them sometimes heading into the grocery store in the morning and I can tell they are at the end of their overnight shift, but they got to get at the grocery shop done, they are exhausted, whatever, they have got four kids [indiscernible 22:58] finding time to shop, finding time to prepare foods and cook foods can be challenging depending on what people have going on in their lives, so that I think is it gets a little, we can get all romantic about this relationship with the earth and getting our hands dirty and cultivating a more nurturing relationship to what we eat, but you have to have the time and the energy, the mental and physical energy to do that. I think now we have really got far, I feel if we start talking about, we need to reform our child care, maternity leave to make that possible.
Jonathan: Absolutely, what do you think for example again I think that sometimes it is a false dichotomy, it is like health is difficult or eating healthful foods is difficult and being unhealthy is simple whereas for example an overweight child will have more difficulty in their everyday functioning just think about the social ostracism, even if a child were to smoke cigarettes, like they wouldn’t have a hard time getting a date to the prom, they wouldn’t be mocked continuously, so I think sometimes we have just got to say life isn’t necessarily easy.
Monica: You’re economist and so you understand how difficult it is to get people to delay gratification, how much people discount both rewards and penalties when they are in the future and how hard it is for us to weigh an immediate reward against a future penalty and with their eating behaviors, it doesn’t ever seem like the 500-calories I am about to stuff in my face right now are directly responsible for the misery I feel tomorrow on the playground or in 10 years when I am sitting home at the prom.
It is just in human nature, that’s tough and also even if eating healthy can theoretically be just as easy or just as efficient as eating unhealthy, changing behaviors is hard, changing culture is hard and that’s part of what I think we can do in the school system to help build and to help make the cultural shift at the very early level, but there is something you said a couple of minutes ago that I thought would be sort of an interesting pivot.
You were talking about, it’s not just about having six-pack abs, it’s about being happy and that leads me to another kind of topic that I often have and this is now kind of heading back to our 1%, the folks who are hanging on our every word and looking up the Omega-6, Omega-3 ratio of every nuts to [crosstalk 25:53] they too can get to the point where the pursuit of health becomes at the expense of balanced harmonious relationships than [crosstalk 26:05] and I think that is like the other end of the extreme focus on nutrition can start to be a little bit of impediment to a balanced healthy life and there is a colleague of mine over on your coast actually not too far from you; Yoni Freedholf, he is up in Vancouver and he has a great quote, I think I said this to you once before, you said “oh that’s a great quote can I quote you on it” and I said no you have to quote Yoni on this.
The goal here is not to have a perfect diet or even a perfect body, but to live the healthiest life that we can enjoy living and I think that that’s good for those of us who are sort of involved in the higher reaches of this conversation to remember that yes you can’t spend all your time obsessing about this, you do have to remember…that food is more than just you will be wanting to nourish healthy bodies, but it is also part of the way we interact with people and the world and it is okay to enjoy things and to go ahead and let yourself off the hook every once in a while and eat something just because you love it or because it is a special occasion as long as that’s in balance with your other goals.
Jonathan: Absolutely, there is nothing quite like wanting something at the exclusion of everything else in your life to make you unhappy, it is a term called Paradoxical Intention which not to get again now too psychological, but if you are getting ready to speak publicly and you are nervous, the best way to make yourself more nervous is to try to become less nervous because think about how nervous you are and try to force yourself to not be nervous, you will become more nervous.
There may be another example, let’s say you are sleeping, you are lying in bed at night, you can’t fall asleep, think about how you can’t fall asleep and consciously try to fall asleep, you will not fall asleep. So sometimes the harder we try to achieve something, it can actually work against us and it gets back to a Henry David Thoreau quote which I am going to butcher, but it is something along the lines of “If you want to be happy, don’t directly pursue happiness, rather pursue something else meaningful and happiness will land on your shoulder much like a butterfly, but if you try to chase a butterfly it will fly away from you, but if you just sit there calmly, the butterfly will land on your shoulder,” so we are all about philosophy and psychology in this podcast.
Monica: I know, we are going to be off topic for the entire thing, but I think another way of keeping that truth in mind that you just expressed Jonathan is that it can be fun to follow our passions, but that it is important especially when we are zooming in to remember to go back to the wide angle and it is the whole forest and trees thing and those of us who spend a lot of time examining individual trees, need to make it a priority once a day, once an hour or something to step back and re-frame it in terms of the larger perspective so that we cannot lose ourselves…that concentration is fun, but perspective is also really important.
Jonathan: Couldn’t have said any better myself Monica and what’s next for you? This podcast just shows Monica is a wealth of information folks, so please check her out and I know you have got a bunch of new stuffs coming out, Monica, what’s next for you?
Monica: It is such a luxury to be able to kind of just sit back and talk like you say, it is sort of from a high sort of conceptual level, but when we finish up here, I am going to dig back into sort of my weekly pile of answering listeners questions, reporting this weeks podcast, have some fun speaking engagements coming up working with researchers on various projects. So it is always just a wide mix of projects, but it all comes back to what can we understand about food that can make us healthier and happier and one of the things that I love so much about our era; yours and mine of digital publishing is that it is so easy to have a conversation.
I wrote my first book long before Twitter and podcasting and blogging and it was such a one-way conversation, I thought about something I wanted to talk about, I did a bunch of research, I spent a year writing it and eight months later it finally came out in print and who knows would anybody thought of it, it was kind of lonely and now with the way that we create and distribute contents through blog posts or podcast, through digital e-books, it feels so much more like a lifetime conversation. If I talk about something on podcast by the end of the day, I already know what people thought or an alternate position or great conversation got launched and that’s just one of the ways which I really enjoy the era that we are in right now and so it makes it hard to answer that question Jonathan because I never quite know what’s coming around the next bend, it is just that’s what makes it fun to get up every morning to see what each day brings.
Jonathan: I love it, well folks if you want to engage in that wonderful conversation with Monica, she is definitely easy to find. When you are checking out your Smarter Science of Slim podcast, you will notice another podcast that is consistently at the very top of your screen, that is nutrition diva podcast and that is Monica. She is the nutrition diva and you can find her on Social Media with the same tag. You can also find her on her website, which is a hub for all things Monica related and that is nutritionovereasy.com. All sorts of again podcast, blogpost, books, good stuffs in general. Monica thank you so much for all that you are doing for the wonderful insights today, it has been a pleasure.
Monica: Thanks Jonathan, I always enjoy your conversations. I look forward to the next one.
Jonathan: Awesome, thank you so much and listeners thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did. I am so excited, I am getting tongue tied. In fact, remember, this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.
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