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Hartland author examines a better way to eat for health and climate

  • Larry Olmsted poses for a portrait at his home in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, May 17, 2019. In a recent TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada in Reno, Olmsted shared how to eat healthier by buying whole foods. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Larry Olmsted poses for a portrait in his home in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, May 17, 2019. Olmsted's book "Real Food,Fake Food" is a New York Times bestseller. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2019 10:00:20 PM
Modified: 5/28/2019 10:00:17 PM

Larry Olmsted wants you to look your fish in the eye.

In a recent TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada in Reno, the Hartland resident and bestselling author of Real Food Fake Food, urged a return to whole foods in the truest sense of the term.

“I tried to distill everything down to the single broadest piece of advice,” Olmsted said in an interview at Tuckerbox in White River Junction earlier this month.

That advice: Buy whole foods. Whole chickens. Whole fruits. Whole blocks of cheese. And, perhaps most important if you’re a fish eater, whole fish.

“Every day at supermarkets across America … we pay more and we get less,” Olmsted, 53, explained in the 13-minute talk before a crowd of about 2,000. “Less flavor, less food and less health.”

That’s not new information. As Americans reckon with interrelated health and climate crises, bookstore shelves are jammed with guidance along the same lines as Olmsted’s, and stores like Whole Foods are doing a brisk business.

But that doesn’t mean eating well is easy in a world full of processed foods, misleading claims and suspect ingredients.

“In the U.S., we’re used to a lot of regulations,” said Olmsted, a freelance journalist, food columnist and visiting lecturer in Dartmouth College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. “I think people have grown up in this country thinking that government regulation is a safety net.”

But there are a lot of holes in that safety net, Olmsted said.

The seafood industry is perhaps the best example. Numerous studies and investigations have demonstrated that our fish supply is tainted at various points along the supply chain, he said. Prepared seafood products are often thin on actual seafood and stuffed with fillers. And even when you buy a filet of fish at the grocery store, Olmsted said, you really have no way of knowing if it’s actually what it’s billed to be.

The solution, he explained in his talk: Get to know your fish. If you want red snapper, for example, Google it, then go to the fish market and find a whole red snapper that matches the picture. And if taking home the whole fish, eyeballs and all, fills you with trepidation, simply ask the fishmonger to cut it into filets for you.

The same philosophy applies to chicken, Olmsted said. Instead of paying twice as much per pound for conventionally raised chicken that’s been cut into boneless, skinless breasts, “one of the blandest foods known to man,” he said, buy whole, naturally raised chicken.

If cheese is on your grocery list, steer clear of those zipper pouches of grated cheeses, which contain cellulose, an additive designed to prevent clumping but often used in excess because it’s cheaper than cheese, Olmsted told the crowd. Instead, “You take a grater and a chunk of cheese, and you go like this,” he said, miming the motion of grating cheese, a gesture that illustrated how little effort goes into a lot of the food preparation we pay extra for — and drew laughter from the audience.

In spite of his seeming ease in front of the crowd, Olmsted, a seasoned speaker, said the TEDx Talk was a new experience for him because of its scripted, one-take nature.

“It has to be basically memorized, so that was a little intimidating,” he said.

If the venue took him out of his element, the topic was second nature to Olmsted.

Raised in Queens, he graduated from Georgetown University in 1987 and moved to Vermont a few years later, intending to stay just a year. Instead he fell in love with small-town life and decided to stay put.

“I love that when I go to the post office I probably know someone in there,” said Olmsted. “Plus, we have a lot of really good cheese.”

A 2006 graduate of Dartmouth’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, Olmsted initially built his career on travel writing, but eventually began shifting his attention to food as he noticed the ways it permeated virtually all human experiences.

“People travel for many reasons … but all of them eat,” he said.

Olmsted’s foray into the world of food was fortuitous. Around the same time he began viewing the world in terms of its gastronomy, the birth of the Food Network and the rise of social media began to elevate food writing to a more prominent place in culture.

“The interest in food really has changed,” said Olmsted. Now, instead of building vacations around visits to landmarks, people increasingly build them around chefs or restaurants, he said. And media outlets devote more time and space to examining food as integral to people and places.

But in our food-centric culture, Americans remain confused about what to eat. Olmsted, who enjoys cooking at home when he’s not traveling, acknowledges that following his whole food advice isn’t easy for everyone. But he thinks part of the problem is that Americans have been conditioned to think food should be cheap.

“When I was growing up, shrimp was a delicacy. Now you see these advertisements for all you can eat shrimp,” he said. “In some cases, eating well does cost a lot more. ... But I would rather eat good steak once a week than crappy steak three times a week.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.

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