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Nutrition and obesity issues have long been a staple of the discussion amongst members of the MNB community, and the perspective that always has seemed to be most logical is that healthy eating isn’t so much about denial as it is about smart, timely choices and a sense of perspective.

For that reason, it was interesting to see that the Discovery Health Network will debut a new series this week, “Healthy Decadence with Devin Alexander,” which is designed to help viewers adjust familiar and favorite recipes so that they are healthier without losing the taste. Alexander, who has written several cookbooks published by Rodale Press, is a delightful onscreen presence – think Rachael Ray before she was everywhere – and has an intriguing personal narrative that informs her work and gives her a level of credibility that some TV chefs don’t have.

So, we thought it might be interesting to engage Alexander in an exclusive e-interview, to get a sense of the context within which she is doing the new series.

MNB: For most people, dealing with weight and/or nutrition issues always seems to be a matter of denial – they can’t eat this, they won’t eat that. But your approach is very different, and seems founded on the notion of common sense and informed eating. Can you explain, and tell us how and why you came to this approach?

Devin Alexander: From the time I was 8 to 15, I was constantly trying to diet and I just kept getting fatter and fatter. The mere notion of giving up anything FOREVER, always sent me in a tailspin. But I figured out that if I just tweaked the foods I love by cooking them in a healthier way, I could pretty much eat anything I wanted. I lost over 55 pounds and have kept it off for over 15 years and I never deny my cravings. I don’t ever need to.

MNB: How much information about the products they buy do consumers really need? How good a job do you think retailers and manufacturers do at providing appropriate and relevant information?

Devin Alexander: Consumers deserve a lot of information. I’m very much a supporter of “if you know what you’re eating, you can eat what you love”. A lot of my girl friends have come to me over the years saying that they don’t know why they’re not losing weight. I have them weigh and measure everything just for a day to create awareness. A lot of times they’ll report things like, “small bowl of cereal”. But what is a “small bowl?”. Often times, a “small bowl” will be a cup when the package lists ½ cup as a serving. Now my philosophy is that you can totally eat that whole cup if that’s where you want your calories, but that needs to be compensated for with a smaller dinner or fewer snacks or whatever. Without proper labeling, it’s hard to “know”. I think with packaged goods, manufacturers and retailers do a great job. It’s those darn items in the fresh cases and hot plate items etc. that people think are good for them and aren’t always. Just because something is called a turkey meatball…don’t be fooled. There’s a good chance it’s actually high in fat.

MNB: One of your specialties seems to be making versions of fast foods that are more nutritious and taste better. Is this easy or hard...not just to cook, but to get people to take the time to actually cook?

Devin Alexander: I purposefully make all of my recipes very easy for people. I get letters from single dads all of the time thanking me for giving them options for their kids. They feel they need to cook for their kids (even though they never did for themselves) to keep them healthy. And I’m told that my recipes are extremely user friendly. Sometimes people tell me they don’t have time to cook. While I understand that people lead busy, demanding lives, I always say that I don’t have time NOT to cook.

For one, it’s just plain hard to get tasty, healthy food out. So if you rely on eating out, you probably don’t know that they’ve used 2 tablespoons of butter (220 calories and 22 g of fat in butter alone) to cook your egg white omelet that you could make extremely delicious at home with a light mist of olive oil spray and some decadent low-fat ingredients, etc.). Plus, imagine all of the time (and money) overweight and/or diabetic families could save if they didn’t have to visit the doctor so often for weight-related issues. That would also translate in time saved working because they wouldn’t need to work extra hours to cover medical costs. Bottom line to me personally is that 20 minutes in my kitchen saves me three hours on the stairmaster daily, which is a no brainer! And once you start cooking it just gets easier and easier just like riding a bike or anything else that might seem like a challenge at first. I always say that one of the best things you can do for your children is teach them how to cook.

MNB: What role do you think that the government should play in mandating things like trans-fat bans?

Devin Alexander: I think the government should definitely ban trans fats in all food served in schools, period the end. Children don’t have the ability to make informed, intelligent decisions. And though I would love it if our society strived toward cutting them by choice, I think there are certain dishes in higher-caliber restaurants that almost need to contain them to an extent. Sure, it would be nice if everyone chose not to eat that food, but I don’t know that I think the government should have the right to actually control it. I’d much prefer seeing the government mandate full disclosure when trans fats are present. For me personally, however, I choose to eat only foods that are trans fat free.

MNB: When you choose foods, how important are issues like “organic,” “local,” and “natural” in making product choices?

Devin Alexander: In an ideal world, everything would be organic, local and natural. That said, however, it’s not always feasible for reasons of cost, availability, etc. I think it’s best if people are educated on which foods are worth spending the extra money on and which aren’t as essential. If we all take steps toward eating organic, local and natural, the costs will decrease for manufactures and farmers and they will be more affordable for all. Plus, eating local helps save our environment.

MNB: What’s the best thing you like about going to the supermarket? The worst?

Devin Alexander: For me, the supermarket is a big playground to explore. I am constantly searching for the “cool” new products and am looking to be inspired (and often am) by new foods and more choices. I love when I see new lower-fat, lower calorie foods popping up. Plus, I “use” the grocery stores a lot and thus have befriended the fish monger, butchers, deli counter workers, produce guys, etc., so it’s always a pleasant experience for me to see my “friends”. People don’t realize how far a “Hello, how are you today, Roberto?” will go at their grocery stores. I’ve taken the time to learn everyone by name and they literally tell me about new things, tell me which fish is freshest, get the newest produce from the back, let me sample any fruit I want before buying, etc. And it’s not only because of my career. I’ve been doing it my entire adult life. People don’t talk to the workers as it they are a knowledgeable resource (many are!) so they just do their jobs, but 9 times out of 10, they’ll guide you to buying the best. The thing I like least about the grocery store is that not any one (at least in my area) carries all of the products I need. So I have to make 3 stops on days that I’m seriously cooking.

MNB: If you could design your own store to meet the criteria that you have for a successful shopping experience, what would it look like and what kinds of products would it carry?

Devin Alexander: I wish more people would carry lower-fat products and maybe give samples of the great ones so people would actually buy them. In my experience, the samples are ALWAYS of really fatty foods. Ever since the low-carb movement, I have had a harder and harder time finding the lower fat products I need and love. I’d also make sure people knew that the employees are there to help them and answer questions, etc. Oh, and I’d love it if they all charged less for the healthier products!

“Healthy Decadence” premieres Thursday on the Discovery Health Network at 10:30 pm, EDT.
KC's View:
If you look at this the right way, Devin Alexander is handing retailers a sales manual for how to sell – really sell - products in the supermarket. Using approaches like hers is a great way to give consumers a difference sort of perspective and context for the shopping experience…and we think it makes a lot of sense.

By the way, you can check out her website: http://www.devinalexander.com