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Celeb chefs to the rescue

Celebrity chefs now have a bigger responsibility to ensure that people eat well.

by: AP | 07 Apr 2010
Family eating

Jamie Oliver is using fresh fruit and vegetables to try to win the hearts, or at least the fatty arteries, of a West Virginia city. Rachael Ray is working to reform school lunch. Paula Deen, queen of Southern-fried goodness, recently taught an auditorium of kids how to cook and eat healthy.

Chefs have always wanted people to eat something good. Now, it seems they are just as interested in seeing that people eat well.

Pioneers like California chef Alice Waters and, more recently, journalist Michael Pollan have been preaching the gospel of fresh, unadulterated food for years.

But when everyone from Deen to "Dancing With the Stars" alum Rocco DiSpirito is talking about the benefits of produce over processed, it is clear that the tent has gotten a little bigger.

That is partly because the rock star status TV chefs enjoy giving them an entree into American kitchens that previous proponents of healthy eating lacked, notes Lee Schrager, founder and organizer of the annual South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

Oliver, for example, is headlining "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," an ABC reality show documenting his efforts to change eating habits in a community the network calls the nation's unhealthiest.

Chefs have a responsibilty

Chefs are realizing they have a responsibility to use their influence to foster change, Oliver says. And celebrities often can do that with more panache than traditional nutrition advocates have.

Snappy titles and glamorous stars are new tactics for the eat healthy movement, which in the past has been perceived, fairly or not, as fun-deprived. Even Sesame Street is reaching for star power. The program recently named Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's former chef, as its healthy eating adviser.

"It's becoming less elitist," says nutrition and policy expert Marion Nestle, who credits first lady Michelle Obama's championing of healthy eating with helping take the issue mainstream.

A tipping point in the debate seems to be child obesity, the focus of the first lady's campaign. A nation that can gaze with equanimity at racks of XXL clothing for grown-ups has grown less tolerant of needing "husky" jeans for 5-year-olds.

Even the message itself has changed. Low-fat and low-carb are so last century. Today, it is about balance and real foods.

"It's far better to eat a balanced diet of full-fat whole foods than it is to eat no-fat, low-fat or fake foods where they've replaced fat with fillers and stuff like that," says Rachel Ray. "And I think that one of the benefits of eating a balanced diet is that you can eat some of the things that are not so figure-friendly some of the time."

Still, even celebrity-driven change does not come easily.

Oliver, in the early episodes of his new show at least, has made some converts but also gotten pushback from people who do not take kindly to an out-of-towner overhauling their diets.

But, he says, it is an effort worth making.

"One doesn't want to suck the life or fun out of food because that would be wrong. But, you know, I think the general world of food; chefs, celebrity chefs, fast-food industry, supermarkets, the `government food gang,' they all need to do a bit. Hopefully, a bit more than a bit. And if they do, the world will change."

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