As recently mentioned, one of my favorite parts of being a dietitian is talking to people about food choices and what matters to them. Uncovering favorite dishes, the familiar and nostalgic memories of what families have been cooking up for generations – literally.
So many individual stories stick in my mind and help me stay connected to the whole purpose of what I do as a dietitian. It’s a reason why I dislike the use of the word “consumer”. Eating and connecting through food is not a business transaction. It’s one of the most personal ways we can connect, and it’s a connection to our childhood/our values, and a way to teach the next generation.
Enter the can of lard story.
Here’s the way this transpired:
For nearly ten years, I had the privilege (and I am using this word intentionally) of working for the number one grocery chain in Chicago. If you live here, you know I am talking about Jewel-Osco. The Jewels. My Jewel. So many terms of endearment for our stores, and yes, all these years later, I still say “we”. One of the many, many things that made Jewel-Osco special is how connected to the communities we served we were. Our stores varied by community and request, carrying products that were special to families from around the world, literally. We worked hard to be sure our connections were authentic. As one small example of this, I ran my articles past a diverse team of colleagues (we had experts across demographics that we worked with, which is a whole other awesome story) to ensure my nutrition message was culturally appropriate in addition to being scientifically accurate. We were aware of details like different translations in other languages that may not have the right context. We were aware of the deep meaning of food and choices. This mattered deeply to all of us. We worked collaboratively to engage internally and externally. My nearly ten years there with that team? Gold standard.
In that time, we partnered with organizations like the American Heart Association, Feeding America (Greater Chicago Food Depository and Northern Illinois Food Bank specifically), the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, and countless others. This is not an all-inclusive list, #ad, or #sponsored post. This is background leading up to how I met the lady with the lard on the stove.
In my role, I wrote articles, did television and radio interviews, wrote social media posts and education for our ads, and did presentations for all kinds of groups. One year, during heart month, one of these moments took me to one of the biggest medical centers in Chicago for a Go Red for Women presentation on healthy eating for your heart. It was mostly women due to the nature of the talk, of various ages and cultural backgrounds. The room was buzzing with questions and stories. It was an amazing opportunity to connect, because so many don’t realize that heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women. This group knew, because they themselves or a loved one had heart disease. So lifestyle choices were high on their list of important things to take action on.
As I finished up my talk and we entered the q & a portion (I do love me some Q&A!), a woman stood up and asked her question:
She grew up with a can of lard on the stove. She described her family’s cooking, how lard flavored so many of their dishes. She was filled with confusion and angst about how to reconcile the memories of her family, learning how to cook from the generations before her, and of course, the taste. As an important side note, using everything – not wasting food and therefore, honoring the harvest – lard is part of that discussion. But that’s a different part of this story for another time. This particular story is about flavor and fat. So…
After she had her experience with her heart-related condition (even though she shared this story publicly in the presentation, I will hold some of the details for privacy sake, even all these years later), she had been told that liquid oils like olive oil or canola were a better fat profile in terms of heart health.
Exasperated yet wanting to do better for her health, she asked me what to do.
This is where the human part of food comes in.
I reinforced that yes, there are different fats.
I reinforced that yes, we can honor what our families eat, even as we evolve our choices to include new foods and new ways of cooking.
I gave the suggestion that perhaps she could try blending olive or canola oil with a small amount of lard to add the flavor and the feeling that she equated with the lard. We talked about portions, the importance of balance on the plate, and cooking techniques that help with sodium, fat, and excess calories.
She looked relieved.
I think of her often, even as I think of some of my own family food traditions. It’s one of the reasons I became a dietitian, actually, to help balance out all the complexities of the food choices we each make.
If you are in the business of health and wellness, you will be better at what you do if you think about how incredibly personal these choices are.
If you are interested in better health for yourself and/or your loved ones, you will be better at what you do if you know you don’t have to go to extremes to do better.
Food is more than the sum of its components. Cooking means more than just getting a dish on the table. Eating sustains life, and yet it also shows emotion.
Let’s take this moment that has been thrust upon us around the world to remember that we have choices, that it’s important to practice good self care, and that we don’t need to all eat the same thing or the same way. It’s not that we don’t follow science, or ignore the information that there may be many good ways to accomplish good health. It’s that we take the science as we know it today and have some fun applying it while not forgetting to step back and see the bigger picture.
No one food will destroy us (unless of course, we are truly allergic to it!).
No one food will save us.
We all have our “can of lard” that we need to figure out how to fit into what we are doing. Let’s do it, one scoop at a time.