Why are health books written at such a high level?

Health books written at high grade levelI have a confession. I never finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Actually, I never really started it. [Hangs head] I bought it, skimmed it, read the intro and a few paragraphs. What’s holding me back? Flashbacks to harrowing events with academic texts. The recognition that his book reads like an assignment. True to form, I’m procrastinating.

I don’t consider Michael Pollan an eco-snob. Kudos to him for the user-friendly Food Rules. But Omnivore’s Dilemma caters to a highly literate crowd, making it unattainable to thousands…though Pollan did come out with a version of Omnivore’s Dilemma for kids.

People may not NEED this book to make rudimentary health decisions, but they DO miss out on vital points that might stop them in their food choice tracks.

The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding their health.”

According to the Partnership for Clear Health Communication, literacy skills are the strongest predictor of health status, more than age, income, employment status, education level or racial/ethnic group. Most adult Americans read at an 8th to 9th grade level, with 20% of us falling below a 5th grade level. Yet we write most health care materials above the 10th grade level. That needs to change.

Health literacy goes beyond the ability to understand prescriptions and pamphlets. It means access to ideas that directly impact how we buy, grow and process food. Literacy influences preventative care. It expands (or limits) our navigation of both conventional and alternative medical care and compliance with treatments. Low health literacy keeps Americans from feeling better. Low health literacy costs money.

As consumers, we can become proactive; educate ourselves about food choice and sustainable practices. But as writers and educators in the health/wellness and eco-industry fields, we can grasp that to preach to those outside the choir, we need to critically assess our message delivery. Who are we reaching and how? Are we inundating them?  Is it time to include a new audience? I’ve seen many a crusader get excited by research, semantics and quantity of content without considering the crowd. I’ve done it myself. And I lost my audience.

Michael Pollan may not be accessible, but many of us are. And we can take cornerstone works like his and break them down into chewable bites.

That’s my assignment. Yours is to have fun with readability tools and assess your favorite resources; books, websites, treatment pamphlet, etc.* I’ll start a list to share and I’d love to hear from you. I seek stories where you lost the health/wellness/eco message due to chaotic delivery.  Leave some examples of where delivery was clear, accessible and enjoyable in the comments.

…we can all take health literacy a few steps forward.

*Sample paragraphs from The Omnivore’s Dilemma read at 11th, 16th and 20th grade levels. This article reads at a 9th grade level.

[Photo: Rachel Sian/Flickr]



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About Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson is a freelance writer with nearly 20 years of experience in community health education, non-profit program management and mental health counseling. Amy works on projects that promote greener, healthier living through pragmatic approaches. She is an avid fan of reality therapy, small town farmers markets and dishing out home cooking with unsolicited advice. You can also follow Amy’s adventures in realistic wellness.

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  • Jennifer Baker

    I just ordered “Tomorrow’s Garden” by Stephen Orr…inspiring photos that definitely appeal to busy folk that don’t even want to read…but want to expand their horizons to aesthetic and functional gardens-combining organic food and native plants…and chickens.

    • http://www.EcoSnobberySucks.com Jeffrey Davis

      Good book suggestion Jennifer! Let us know how ya like it!