According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a whopping 55% of adult Americans are now classified as overweight -- and that figure continues to grow, pardon the pun. Not surprisingly, every year a new crop of diet books arrives in bookstores. Quick weight-loss plans have long been popular in women's, men's and fitness magazines, and will continue to be so. Yet Americans also love to read about -- and enjoy -- food, whether it's a gourmet meal for two, a simple family meal, or a backyard barbecue for the whole gang.
And there's more to writing about nutrition than simply describing the latest fad diet and whether it works. There is also a growing interest in articles about how nutrition can improve your health and reduce your risk of disease, and specialized fields like sports nutrition and geriatric nutrition are gaining attention. Food writing -- whether it's developing recipes aimed at middle-class families living on budgets or running down the latest cooking trend for higher-end gourmands -- is another lucrative area for those who specialize in it. If you have experience in any of these areas -- or if you just love food -- this may be a specialty for you to consider.
Build your Background. It takes more than the ability to whip together a delicious homemade dinner in less than ten minutes to be a successful food or nutrition writer. If you don't have any specialized background in this area, you may want to develop it before you begin pitching ideas. "If you're writing about food, cook and learn about food," says freelancer Claire Walter of Boulder, Colorado, who writes about food, snow sports and travel. "So if writing restaurant reviews is going to become your specialty, it's not a bad thing to spend a little time getting a job in a restaurant, to get a behind-the-scenes look at whatever your field is." If you've worked in a restaurant, attended a culinary institute or been a chef, you have a leg up on other freelancers. Even reading a few basic books on food and nutrition can help give you a handle on cooking techniques, what nutrients like vitamins and minerals are, and basic terminology.
Consider the Audience. When you're coming up with story ideas, think about the purpose of your story before you write the query or the article itself. Will it be a service-oriented piece explaining why readers should eat more omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and offer ways to incorporate foods that contain them into their diets? An article examining comparing the quality of mail-order steaks? Or a round-up of recipes aimed at busy moms?
Also consider the audience you're writing for. If you're doing a piece on five new ways to prepare chicken for a magazine like Family Circle, you'll probably focus on ease of preparation, low ingredient cost, and taste that both adults and children will like. For a piece for Gourmet, however, you'll want to take a more upscale approach both in terms of the ingredients themselves and in the cooking and preparation.
"You're not going to have really exotic recipes for a magazine like Woman's Day," agrees Diana Luger, a food writer based in Chicago. "Whereas with Bon Appetit, you have to assume you're dealing with a very sophisticated audience and that you're not going to have to explain certain basic terms to them. You can't talk down to them, either."
Think Seasonal. A lot of food-based writing is seasonally oriented. Obviously most people don't want to spend hours in the kitchen making hearty soups and stews during the hottest months of the year, and during the winter months, some fruits and vegetables may be more difficult to come by. Coming up with a holiday or seasonal theme for your articles, whether it's Christmas, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, or Lent -- or for graduations, picnics, or tailgates -- will also increase your chance of selling the idea.
"I would say a vast majority of food writing is seasonally-oriented and I think people miss out on those opportunities," says Luger. "You tend to think of Christmas in October and November, but editors are thinking about it in May or June, or earlier. Those articles are some of the hardest to write but they're the ones editors are always looking for, because they're been doing it for 20 years." Look for a fresh viewpoint or a new angle on a tried-and-true topic to get your foot in the door.
Stay Trendy. Foods come in and out of fashion just like clothing styles. Right now, millions of Americans are interested in lowering their fat while many more are limiting the amount of carbohydrates they consume due to high-protein diets. Some are focusing on eating foods in their natural state, others are eliminating sugar from their diets, and still others are enjoying a return to the "comfort foods" they grew up with. Stay in touch with what's hot both in diets and food, and use that information to pitch timely story ideas.
"You need to find the trends coming up through the food service area before they hit the streets and before the average person knows about them," says Luger. "There are a lot of food service magazines that are geared to restaurant owners or people who package food, and I recommend people read those. Trendiness in the sense of ingredients and sauces and styles of cooking are cyclical. For example, you might want to do a recipe with chipotles. They're wonderful but they're not the hot trendy thing anymore." Luger also attends food shows and talks to local chefs to keep up on new ingredients and cooking styles.
Do your Homework. When you're writing about nutrition, it's important to "know what you don't know," says Ed Blonz, a researcher and nutrition writer in Kensington, California. "I find that nutrition is something that everyone feels a sense of familiarity with because we all eat," says Blonz. "And also, there's a logic involved with 'this is good' and 'this is bad.' Without understanding the science behind it, people can get the mindset that they have more a grasp than they do, so not knowing the limits of your knowledge might lead you to accept basic intuitive explanations that have no scientific validity."
That's why most editors will insist that you back up any nutrition claims with copies of studies, research articles and the like. If you don't have a background in nutrition, invest in a textbook that covers the basics; you might also take an entry-level nutrition course at your local college.
Find the Experts. When you're researching stories, be wary of any claims that sound too good to be true. "Be careful with the Internet," says Blonz. "It's fraught with commercial interests that are being masked as unbiased information." So how do you separate fact from fiction and helpful information from hype? By asking your sources to back up any claims they make. If you interview a researcher who says that his study proves that adding red pepper to food can help you lose weight, press for details about his work. What kind of study was involved? How much red pepper was used? How much weight did people lose? Were the study subjects even human? (You'd be amazed at the number of nutrition studies cited as conclusive by some "experts" that in fact involved rats or other animals.)
It helps to start developing a list of expert sources who know what's happening in the field. Associations like the American Dietetic Association will give you referrals to registered dietitians who have backgrounds in particular areas; you can also check with local colleges and universities to learn what types of research they're conducting. If you're working on a story and need an expert, call a major university or hospital and ask for their public affairs department; they can usually hook you up with a qualified person.
"Read as much as you can of other writers and scientists who are doing what you want to do," says Blonz. "You start getting an idea of who's who. Every time you see someone who is saying something that makes sense, write their name down, and you'll start to compile lists of sources for the various aspects of nutrition and food."
Be Daring. Food writing isn't for everyone -- if you're a vegetarian or even a picky eater, you might want to consider another specialty. To write about food, you have to keep an open mind about new tastes, cooking styles, and trends. "You have to be daring, and I think anyone who wants to write about food is," says Walter. "You can't turn your nose up at vast categories or of cooking, and I would suspect that anyone who doesn't have an adventuresome palate won't want to write about food anyway."
Be careful of your own biases, too. While I'm a vegetarian, I've written plenty of articles that talk about the nutritional benefits of eating beef, for example. I can't let my personal preferences overshadow the writing and reporting I do. While I might not believe all of the claims that some of the fad diet stories I've written promise, I can still report and write the story, and leave it up for readers to try and judge on their own.
Get Out of the House. If you do a lot of food or recipe writing, you may spend a lot of time in your own kitchen developing and test recipes. But attending meetings or seminars can help you stay abreast of what's happening in the fields of nutrition and food, and may help you nail more work as well. "Network, network, network," says Walter. "You never know where referrals will come from, and you never know who will call because you met at a conference or because you were both at a workshop."
Be Clear. Articles about food and nutrition must also be accurate and easy to understand. Be as specific as you can -- if you're writing about fiber, don't just say "it's important to include more fiber in your diet," for example. Instead, say "most dietitians recommend that adults eat between 25 and 35 grams of fiber a day." Then give ways that readers can do that, or include examples of how much fiber common foods contain.
Obviously, when writing recipes, you must specify the exact amounts of ingredients. List them in the order they are used, and include any special cooking or preparation tools -- nonstick pans, for example -- as well as a list of the steps to take to put the recipe together. "You always want to list the first ingredient you use first, and do it in a very systematic way," says Luger. "You want to make things as concise and clear as possible and consider your audience. If you're writing for Woman's Day, you might want to explain something more in depth than if writing a general cookbook."
Write about diet, nutrition, and food, and you'll find a wide variety of markets for your work. Some of the biggest include:
When researching stories about food, nutrition and diet subjects, you'll need to find and interview credentialed, reliable experts and research studies. Some of the organizations and governmental agencies that can provide you with that kind of information and experts are listed below:
The Resource Guide for Food Writers by Gary Allen (Routledge, 1999) is loaded with organizations, periodicals, web sites, databases and other sources of information for food and nutrition writers.
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