Changing deeply ingrained eating habits happens gradually, one bite at a time

Changing deeply ingrained eating habits happens gradually, one bite at a time

Pass the octopus, please. A friend and I were dining recently at a Mediterranean cafe, and as she handed me the bowl, it occurred to me how odd those words would have sounded coming from me 20 years ago. As a 7-year-old finicky eater, I never, ever, not in a hundred-bajillion years would have ever uttered such a thing. Octopus? Gross!

As a child, I was addicted to chicken tenders and fries. The few vegetables I would eat came from cans. And all sandwiches, from PB&Js to turkey, were made with white bread.

Over two decades, of course, all of that changed. I steer clear of most fried foods, I love going to the market for fresh vegetables and I never buy white bread.

How to turn white-bread eaters like my former self into multigrain devotees was a question posed again and again at the Just Ask for Whole Grains conference held earlier this month in Kansas City, Mo. The three-day conference was organized by the Whole Grains Council and the Oldways Preservation Trust, both nonprofit advocacy groups.

The event brought together health professionals, manufacturers, chefs, restaurant operators, consumer trends experts and government officials to discuss how to get Americans to eat more whole grains both at home and in schools and restaurants.

As I thought about my own eating habits, I knew there was not one solid explanation for why they have evolved so much. The only thing I know for sure is that they didn’t change overnight.

That’s what many of the speakers at the conference have concluded as well. However impatient many of them are to see whole grains on the plates of all Americans, they know that slow and steady is the way to go when it comes to the tricky task of changing how people eat.

This is especially true for restaurant companies, which often get the brunt of the blame for the nation’s obesity problems. Restaurants continue to make strides in offering more healthful choices, but those efforts have to come in small steps in order to be successful and not alienate customers.

The members of the Whole Grains Council know this. In fact, the conference’s stated goal was “to make sure that there is at least one whole-grain choice everywhere Americans eat.” Of course, the council would love to see several whole-grain choices on menus, but striving for at least one item made with whole grains is a smart and realistic way to start.

So quinoa is probably never going to replace French fries on fast-food menus, but hamburgers served on whole-wheat buns is not such a crazy notion.

And who knows? As the Whole Grains Council continues its steady push to improve the country’s eating habits, perhaps eventually the phrase “Pass the bulgur wheat” won’t sound so strange, either.