Are Food Blogs Helping or Hurting America’s Waistlines?

oreo stuffed cookie

Bakerella on flickr

I happened to stumble across a post in my Facebook feed from Eater  “Study: Food Blogs Are Trying to Kill You.”  What?  I had to read that.  Yes, provocative headline, for sure.  The article was reporting on a new study from Simmons College in Boston that was published  in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.  I could only find the abstract and press release online, so I contacted the journal to get a full copy of the paper.

So I read the study [Do Food Blogs Serve as a Source of Nutritionally Balanced Recipes? An Analysis of 6 Popular Food Blogs]…and I want to put it in perspective.

Here’s the deal.  Lisa Brown, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College, and her master’s students Elizabeth Schneider, Emily McGovern and Collenn Lynch took a look at 6 popular food blogs, including many of my favorites:  Smitten KitchenSimply Recipes, Pioneer Woman,  Pinch My Salt, and  Chocolate and Zucchini.  The only blog I didn’t know was Busy at Home.

This is how it got started, or what Dr. Brown told FoxNews.com

“I’m a professor working with a team of students who did this as a master’s thesis, and they felt like their friends were using food blogs often. And a lot of the recipes they were talking about using were not sounding as good as they would like them to be.”

The research team analyzed 96 main-course recipes from the 6 different blogs — pulling 2 entrees per season per year for the years 2010 and 2011.  The seasons were in 3-month increments — fall, winter, spring and summer.  So basically, they calculated the nutrient values of the 96 recipes using a computer software program developed by ESHA Research, Inc. (Food Processor Nutrition and Fitness software).  The recipes were selected chronologically on the blog to avoid selection bias, according to the methodology description. The final recipes included 38% vegetarian dishes, 33% red meat, 21% poultry and 8% seafood.

After the nutrition analysis was conducted on each of the entree recipes, it was compared to dietary guidelines — or specifically one-third of the Dietary Reference Intakes based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Using this proportion, the paper states, a meal should have included about:

  • 667 calories
  • 17 g protein
  • 100 g carbohydrate
  • 22 g fat
  • 6.7 g saturated fat
  • 767 mg sodium
  • 8.3 g fiber

So what did they find?

The calories were in line (averaging 516 per serving), but the saturated fat and sodium were higher (the press release says “excessive in saturated fat and sodium”).  The average sat fat was 9.4 g (compared to the 6.7 g guideline), yet the vegetarian and seafood averages were only 6.6 g of sat fat — so right in line, although that didn’t get any recognition.  And those two categories represented 46% of total recipes analyzed, which means  the bloggers were meeting the guidelines nearly half of the time.  Remember, the daily target for saturated fat is 20 g or less per day — so a main dish that provides 9.4 g is not “excessive,” especially if this is a dinner entree. The average sodium in the blog recipes was 855 mg (compared to the 767 mg guideline), yet , importantly, this is under the 2,300 mg daily limit — so the meal could still easily be included in a healthy, balanced diet.  And again, the vegetarian and seafood entrees had 605 mg and 631 mg of sodium, respectively, so they were under the guidelines.

The authors do state “daily sodium and saturated fat targets could have been met with other meals throughout the day.”  Exactly.  That’s my point.  Why pick on a recipe because it doesn’t meet a one-third standard.  What really matters it what happens at the end of the day.  A single recipe — or one main course — does not make or break your diet.  All of these dishes could easily fit.  Trying to meet one-third of daily recommendations is a benchmark, a guidepost — not a mandate.  These are main courses, typically for dinner — so it would be logical to have a smaller breakfast or lunch.

In the results, the researchers also ding the recipes for being low in carbohydrates and fiber. These are primarily meats — you wouldn’t expect them to be excellent sources of fiber.  That’s why you have a salad with your meal, and enjoy a side of vegetables and whole grains.  I don’t think it’s fair to get demerits for not meeting this one-third standard.  This was one part of a total meal. Again, you need to keep sight of the big picture.

Clotilde Dusoulier, the blogger behind Chocolate and Zucchini told FoxNews.com in an email:

“My viewpoint on nutrition is that a person’s nutritional balance doesn’t result from a single main dish. It has to be looked at over the course of several days or, nutritionists say, a full week. And while I do feature special-occasion dishes, you’ll notice that the overall selection of recipes I feature leans heavily on fresh produce and generally healthful dishes, so I feel I do set a good example in terms of nutritional balance.”

Bingo. She’s got it right. That’s what I’m saying.

smitten kitchen chickpea

Smitten Kitchen’s Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad by painter girl on flickr

In the press release, co-author Elizabeth Schneider  states:

“It’s exciting to live in an online generation and I believe there is a need for dietitians to have a spot in the food blogging culture.  Wouldn’t it be great to find a ‘dietitian approved’ icon next to healthy online recipes, giving the public peace of mind knowing that the recipes are nutritious?”

Duh? Doesn’t she know that dietitians are fully onboard with the food blogging culture.  Doesn’t she — and her colleagues — know about the Nutrition Blog Network, a group I helped create of 600+ blogs written by registered dietitians.  Maybe they don’t know about Healthy Aperture, a food blogging community of dietitians and other healthy food bloggers that I created with Regan Jones.  It’s an online food photo gallery that helps expose what’s healthy to eat on the web.  So we’re out there in the blogosphere.

Dietitians are doing a lot of great work online. But I think all of the food bloggers examined in this study — and so many others —  are doing a pretty good job on their own. Let’s look at the overall quality of the recipes — the abundance of luscious fresh produce and  hearty whole grains, along with the creative combinations and appealing presentations.  I don’t think a “dietitian approved” stamp is needed.  Let’s don’t be the nutrition police.   Sure, there are a few more stuffed cookie and cake pop recipes than we really need from some food bloggers (not the group called out in the study, though).  But I think we should give food bloggers  more credit for inspiring people to cook, getting people excited about food. Making your own food at home is always a better alternative than grabbing take-out or picking up something in the drive-thru.

Don’t get  me wrong.  I love the idea that nutrition students are looking at the impact of social media.  That’s so important.  But can’t studies explore the positive impact?

I just think this wasn’t the right approach.  And the coverage of this study is certainly more negative than it should be.  My hope is that we’ll design studies that explore how social media can positively impact health behaviors, like The Social Network Diet, the Pinterest Diet, or Your Twitter Diet.  I think social media can be a positive force.

Are food blogs helping or hurting America’s waistlines?  I think they have a tremendous opportunity to help.

 

 

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2 Comments

  • diana chard

    Great take! As an RD, blog writer, and utilizer of many recipe blogs, I completely agree. I also think it’s important to note that recipes are guides. Many of us don’t follow them 100%. I often sub ingredients when possible (e.g. Milk for cream, pumpkin purée for fat), reduce or omit salt, and toss extra veg in a main course.

    This study is like the one that vilified famous chefs. I would argue that anything that gets people cookin for themselves is a step to a healthier diet.

  • fanficfan44

    I totally agree, both with your analysis of the research and the idea that food blogs help. One of the biggest issues in unhealthy eating today is the fact that people simply don’t know how to cook, this also contributes to financial issues, due to excessive take out/restaurant/prepared food consumption and that fact that people don’t know how to work with their leftovers so we have extraordinary food waste.

    Food blogs, along with people like Jaime Oliver through his books, shows, kitchens, and Delia Smith with her online videos and many others, are all tools to approach this issue of having a population of adults (and children) who cannot prepare their own food. This is a life skill that is no longer being addressed in the school system with the reduction or dismantling of home economics courses.

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