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From Bananas to Blintzes: Writing about Diet, Nutrition and Food
by Kelly James-Enger

Return to Targeting Topical Markets · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

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.

Nuts and Bolts: How to Write about Diet, Nutrition and Food

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."

The Markets: Where to Sell your Work

Write about diet, nutrition, and food, and you'll find a wide variety of markets for your work. Some of the biggest include:

  • Cooking/food magazines: there are a variety of these magazines aimed at everyone from gourmands to vegetarians. All cover cooking techniques, food trends, nutrition research, and other related subjects.

  • General interest magazinesencompass a broad range of topics including new breakthroughs in nutrition, research, food trends, cooking techniques and other related areas.

  • Trade journals aimed at food professionals vary in their coverage, but may be markets for the latest developments in nutrition and food. Trade magazines aimed at other industries such as those involving fitness and health also feature nutrition and food articles.

  • Women's and men's magazines cover a broad range of food, nutrition and diet subjects, mostly service-oriented.

  • Parenting magazines all cover children's nutrition and related topics; many feature simple recipes, topics like packing healthier lunches, cooking with kids, and the like.

  • Health and fitness magazines are similar to general interest magazines in terms of coverage -- broad scope of nearly every nutrition-related topic. These markets tend to be aimed at more specialized audiences, however -- women in their 20s and 30s for example, or men and women 50 and up -- so keep that in mind when pitching stories.

  • Travel magazines often include articles on the foods and cultures of different places; writing about food and travel is a natural combination.

  • Websites -- many web sites, including health ones, these markets cover a variety of health topics. As with other online publications, stories tend to run shorter than in print markets and include quizzes, links to other sites and other interactive features.

  • National/major magazines all have food, nutrition and/or cooking sections.

    Regional/city magazines and newspapers, like their national counterparts, also cover food and nutrition subjects, many with a local angle.

Other Useful Stuff

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:

Government Agencies:

Agricultural Research Service (part of USDA)
This is a nationwide network of research centers which study human nutrition, livestock and crop production, protection and processing.
1400 Independence Ave, S.W. Suite 302A
Washington, D.C. 20250-0300
Phone: 202-720-3656; Fax: 202-720-5427

Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (Agriculture Dept.)
This agency oversees county agents and operation of state offices that provide information on nutrition, diet, food purchase budgeting, food safety, home gardening and other consumer concerns.
1400 Independence Ave., S.W. #305A
Washington, D.C. 20250-2201
Phone: 202-720-4423; Fax: 202-720-8907

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition monitors the safety and labeling of food and cosmetic products. The FDA itself is responsible for developing standards of composition and quality of foods (except meat and poultry), develops safety regulations for foods, cosmetics and drugs; monitors pesticide residues in foods; conducts food safety and nutrition research and develops methods for measuring food additives, nutrients, pesticides and other contaminants; its website is http://www.fda.gov.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
5100 Paint Branch Parkway
College Park, MD 20740-3835
Phone 1-888-723-3366 (CFSAN Food and Information Center)

National Agricultural Library
The center serves individuals and agencies seeking information or educational materials on food and human nutrition, maintains a database of food and nutrition software and multimedia programs, provides reference services and develops resource lists of health and nutrition publications.
Food and Nutrition Information Center
10301 Baltimore Avenue #105
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
Phone: 301-504-5719; Fax: 301-504-6409

Other Associations/Organizations:

American Dietetic Association (ADA)
This 64,000-member organization is made up of registered dietitians, dietetic technicians and other professionals. The ADA promotes nutrition, health and well-being and publishes the Journal of the American Dietetic Association; it also offers nutritional and statistical information to journalists and refers to ADA spokespersons for expert sources.
216 W. Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, IL 60606-6995
Phone: 312-899-0040; Fax: 312-899-1979

American Society for Clinical Nutrition
This organization consists of clinical nutritionists and supports research on the role of human nutrition in health and disease.
9650 Rockville Pike #L3300
Bethesda, MD 20814-3998
Phone: 301-530-7110; Fax: 301-571-1863

American Society for Nutrition
This organization consists of research scientists and conducts research in nutrition and related fields.
9650 Rockville Pike #4500
Bethesda, MD 20814-3998
Phone: 301-530-7050; Fax: 301-571-1892

Center for Science in the Public Interest
This organization conducts research on food and nutrition; interests include eating habits, food safety regulations, food additives, organically produced foods, alcohol beverages and links between diet and disease.
1875 Connecticut Avenue NW #300
Washington, D.C. 20009-5728
Phone: 202-332-9110; Fax: 202-265-4954

International Food Information Council
This organization includes food and beverage companies and manufacturers of food ingredients; provides the media, health professionals, and consumers with scientific information about food safety, health and nutrition.
1100 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. #430
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 202-296-6540; Fax: 202-296-6547

National Restaurant Association
This trade organization consists of more than 52,000 member companies representing more than 254,000 restaurants; maintains statistics.
1200 17th St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 202-331-5900; Fax: 202-331-2429

Nutrition Education Association
This organization educates the public about the importance of good nutrition as a means of acquiring and maintaining good health.
P.O. Box 20301
3647 Glen Haven
Houston, TX 77225
Phone: 713-665-2946

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
This organization is made up of health care professionals, medical students and laypersons interested in preventive medicine; conducts clinical research, educational programs and public information campaigns.
5100 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. #400
Washington, D.C. 20016

Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior
This 1800-member organization includes nutrition educators from the fields of dietetics, public health, home economics, medicine, industry and education.
1001 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 528
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202-452-8534 or 800-235-6690; Fax: 202-452-8536

Writers' Organizations and Other Resources:

Association of Food Journalists
This organization includes both freelance food journalists and those on staff at newspapers, magazines, and internet services.
38309 Genesee Lake Road
Oconomowac, WI 53066
Phone: 262-965-3251

International Association of Culinary Professionals
This organization includes food writers, cookbook authors, cooking school owners, chefs, caterers, teachers, food stylists and photographers; one section is devoted to Food Writers and Editors.
304 W. Liberty St., Suite 201
Louisville, KY 40202
Phone 502-581-9786 or 800-928-4227; Fax: 502-589-3602

International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA)
Founded in 1956, this 435-member organization consists of professional food, wine and travel journalists in 28 countries; travel and hospitality industry organizations are associate members.
P.O. Box 8249
Calabasas, CA 91372
Phone: 818-999-9959; Fax: 818-347-7545

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.

Find Out More...

10 Less Explored Types of Food Features - Aditi Bose

Cooking Up a Sale: Getting Into Recipe and Food Writing - Dawn Copeman

Copyright © 2003 Kelly James-Enger
Excerpted from Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003.)

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kelly James-Enger escaped from the law in 1997. Since then, the former attorney's work has appeared in more than 40 national magazines including Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, and Self. Kelly specializes in health, fitness, nutrition, relationship, and writing-related topics and is currently a contributing editor for Oxygen, Energy for Women, Complete Woman, For the Bride, and The Writer. She is the author of Six-Figure Freelancing and Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money. She speaks frequently at writer's conferences throughout the country and can be reached through her website at http://www.becomebodywise.com/.


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