- Nutrition -

Fork in the Road

Wake up and smell the statistics. America’s eating has gone bonkers, and it’s up to us to stop the madness.

Have you looked at the face of America’s future lately? You might have to step back to fit it in the frame of your viewfinder. According to James Hill, obesity researcher and director of the Colorado Clinical Nutrition Research Unit at the University of Colorado, by the year 2050, almost all Americans will be overweight.

Yessiree, if our nation’s obesity continues to increase unchecked, that’s what we have to look forward to during the first century of this new millennium. But there’s no need to wait and see how things turn out. With nearly 65 percent of Americans currently overweight or obese, it’s already now more “normal” to be overweight than it is to have a healthy lean-body mass. As a raw, numerical fact, that’s disturbing, but when you stop to think of all the individuals represented by that statistic – all the lives needlessly disrupted and limited, all the families burdened by ill health, to say nothing of the immense public health costs – it becomes downright devastating.

It seems that, as a nation, we are at a crossroads. We can either veer onto a different, better path, significantly changing the way we think about and relate to food, or we can stay on our current course and come face to face with our tubby destiny.

Eating Ourselves Up

Once you really stop and consider the three-ring obesity circus, it doesn’t take long to realize that the world of food has gone totally, completely nuts. Check it out: We’ve got pizza, chicken, taco and burger outfits trying to outdo each other with ever-more-outrageous fried, stuffed, cheese-encrusted, carbohydrate-enhanced, saturated-fat-oozing, super-sized offerings. We’ve got marketers trying to find ways to make sugar drinks even more enticing to small children. We’ve got lawyers and public-action groups who want to sue both the soft-drink and fast-food industries for making us fat. We’ve got people taking drugs and “stapling” their stomachs in an effort to stave off more adipose gains. And of course, we’ve got a whole raft of hucksters and diet czars selling us an outrageous variety of sure-cure products and “fast fix” eating-plan gimmicks, none of which appear to be working.

Meanwhile, hordes of people continue to expand. Millions of our fellow citizens are suffering and dying – not for lack of food as in so many countries, but rather for our embarrassing excesses of it. As taxpayers and insurance-policy holders, we’re spending billions on the public health costs of obesity-related diseases.

Given the enormous quantity of deaths and diseases attributable to obesity, it’s evident that we are quite literally eating ourselves to death. At least, we eat too much of some things. Meanwhile, most of us are probably not eating nearly enough of other things – like fresh, nutritious vegetables and fruits, wholesome proteins and healthy fats. Being creatures of habit and convenience, we’re also not eating nearly enough variety, which nutritional experts say is a critical factor in getting an adequate array of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytochemicals and amino acids.

Instead, in the foods we turn to day after day, we get an overdose of the same handful of remixed and repackaged “commodity” ingredients – flour, sugar, vegetable oil, corn, potatoes – and we get most of it refined and processed and cooked beyond recognition.

You can slice and dice the problem any way you want. You can say we eat too much. We don’t exercise enough. We eat on the go. We eat while we watch TV. We’ve forgotten how to cook. We’ve forgotten how to farm. It’s the chemicals and genetically modified organisms in our food. It’s our culture of convenience and indulgence. It’s a conspiracy of the government and food companies. It’s an economic problem. A social-class problem. A genetic problem. It’s all of the above. And it’s not going away any time soon.

So what can you do? For one thing, you can stop looking at the problem as something (or a conglomeration of things) against which you are powerless. Like it or not, in the end, what reaches your mouth is ultimately a matter of what you are willing to put into it. Yes, it’s tricky to make strides with so many factors and factions working against you. In fact, in a world that makes eating badly feel so easy and taste so darn good, eating well can be a perplexing daily challenge, at least at first. But if you’re waiting around for change to come from the outside, there’s a good chance that your pounds will pile up faster than the collectively brokered solutions. Net outcome: While everyone else is wringing their hands and haggling over whose fault it is, you end up just another statistic in stretch pants.

You don’t have to let this happen! You can buck the system, duck the fat, dodge the bullet! You can go your own way. But first you have to reclaim your fork from the forces-that-be, and take it firmly back into your own hands.

There, doesn’t that feel good? Now, it’s time to stand up, raise your cutlery in the air and yell: “Stop this ride – I want to get off!”

Taking Off the Blinders

The first step toward solving any problem is fully understanding it. As tempting as it may be to dive into simplistic solutions (“Just eat less and exercise more!”), doing so inevitably sets us up for trouble. For one thing, that particular bit of advice hasn’t managed to set most of us on the good path. For another, it really is a tad more complicated than that.

Rain or shine, you probably eat three to six times a day, 365 days a year. Between shopping, driving around, watching TV and going in and out of work and social situations, you’re probably exposed to food, food images, food messages and food choices hundreds of times that often.

That’s a lot of different situations to navigate, and a lot of different decisions. To cope well, you need to be vigilant, discerning, mindful, clever and prepared for anything (add brave, clean and reverent and you’ll qualify as a Food Scout!).

Seriously, though, if you’re not seeing things clearly and you don’t have all the information, mere platitudes and diet tips aren’t going to do you a whole lot of good. So let’s start by looking at the problem on both a micro (individual) and macro (cultural) level.

Why, oh why, are we eating the way we do?

At the individual level, many of us simply have no idea how food affects us or why. For the most part, nutrition isn’t taught in schools or in our homes, so we typically get most of our information about food and diet from marketers, diet books, magazines and other popular media. Much of that information is misleading (“Lose 10 lbs. in 10 days!”), heavily influenced by commercial interests (great headlines and advertiser-friendly content only please!) or it depends on government-generated public-health guidelines (like food pyramids and RDAs) that aim for lowest-common-denominator damage control, not optimal health.

As a result, unless we seek out in-depth, holistic nutritional information from a variety of educated, unbiased sources (generally not the lightest or juiciest reading in the world), we tend to get a fractured and slanted story – news related to specific products for example, or sensational stories about research discoveries or scientific breakthroughs that are taken out of context, blown out of proportion and poorly reported for maximum newsstand appeal.

One decade, fat is the villain. The next, it’s carbs. Instead of understanding the full scope of our body’s nutritional and metabolic requirements and dynamics, instead of seeing that all foods and nutrients have certain properties that can be desirable or undesirable under certain circumstances and in certain forms, combinations, and quantities, we simply villainize some foods and glorify others. We also tend to direct our eating by avoiding certain foods, rather than eating foods for the nutrition they have to offer.

Admittedly, understanding the bigger picture is a challenge. The digestive system, hormonal system, immune system, metabolism – they’re all incredibly complex, interdependent miracles of engineering. But it’s not that we’re incapable of understanding how our bodies work, it’s just that we’re mostly too busy learning other stuff (like how
to download email on our palm-top computers). So we look to diets and commercial “eating plan” advice to help us simplify matters. And too often, we get led astray.

The cure for this problem? We have to educate and reprogram ourselves to be more discerning and less easily influenced. That doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen by choice. You can begin by simply putting on your game face when you go shopping for food or out to eat at a restaurant. Instead of eating like a kid at a county fair (“Ooh, look – corn dogs!”), you can become a “tough customer” who reads labels and ask questions (“Hmmm, I wonder how they gave this meat a two-year shelf life?”). Next time you’re at the newsstand or bookstore, look past the pretty faces and promises on the covers and try to get your hands on some real, solid information that will tell the truth and inspire you to take better care of yourself. You’ll find the truth is actually far more interesting and satisfying than the “Lose 10 lbs. in 10 days!” drivel pandered by the lightweights.

A Calorie is NOT a Calorie

One of the biggest and most overlooked misunderstandings about excess weight is that it is strictly attached to caloric intake. For years, diet books and weight-loss articles harped at us that “a calorie is a calorie.” And many of us took that advice to heart, attempting to monitor our caloric intake while failing to understand that everything from the quality of our food to the ratios and timing of our macronutrient intake could have profound effects on how those calories operated in our bodies and – ultimately – whether they turned to fat or not.

We now know without a doubt that strictly limiting caloric intake without regard to nutritional and chemical considerations is counterproductive. First, when we’re limiting calories but not getting good nutrition – including the right balance of protein, complex carbs and healthy fats – our energy plummets. We become less active, and much more susceptible to food cravings, overeating and, in some cases, ill health.

Second, if we’re using a significant portion of our daily caloric allotment for metabolism-disrupting substances like sugar and refined carbs, or stocking our diets with so-called “free” but body-stressing items like diet sodas and coffee, we’re setting ourselves back even further.

So forget “a-calorie-is-a-calorie” thinking. While it’s true that if you regularly consume more calories than your body can burn you’ll gain weight, you can’t forget that how many calories your body burns is also directly related to how well you eat. That’s because the nutrients attached to the calories in some foods nourish your body in a way that strengthens and energizes you, speeding up your body’s fat-burning machinery. Conversely, nutrient-poor foods – especially those with lots of empty sugars and carbs – can actually help to turn your body’s fat-burning machinery to its lowest setting, robbing you of energy and vitality in the process.

Tally the caloric intake of many natural-health and nutritional experts and you’ll be shocked to find that on a daily basis, many of these slim, healthy-looking people take in twice the calories that you do (or more). While most of these people are relatively active and exercise moderately, their caloric expenditure during exercise is not what accounts for the difference. The difference, as any of them will tell you, is that they’ve learned how to eat in a way that supports their metabolism, supplies ample nutrients and encourages their bodies to run efficiently. In short, they’re eating lots of “good calories” – calories that carry everything their body needs to function brilliantly – and not much else. Yet they hardly ever count calories, because the way they eat, they don’t need to.

Okay, so we know that the key to eating for sustainable weight control and health involves eating in a way that nourishes the body, supports our hormonal balance and stokes the metabolic fire, leaving us feeling energetic, healthy, optimistic and craving-free. Once we accept that, the next step is figuring out why we don’t do that, and how we can.

View to an Expanding Culture

There’s no question that individual ignorance about food and nutrition, combined with individual food issues (like emotional, unconscious and compulsive eating), are responsible, in large part, for our willingness to eat badly. But it’s also important to remember that if individual ineptitude and maladjustment happen to blunt and dull the tines on our forks (making them work better as shovels), we still have our culture to thank for providing a giant drawer full of giant, lackluster cutlery for us to work with.

In his book, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, journalist Greg Critser traces the influences that certain political, economic and social shifts have had on our eating habits over the past 30 years. Covering the same time period of our increasing girth and deteriorating health, Critser exposes how sweeping policy changes in agriculture, education and health have all contributed to making obesity America’s No. 1 health problem.

Predictably, a lot of it comes down to money. According to Critser, it all started in the 1970s with Americans insisting on cheaper food during a brief time of scarcity and price escalation. The Nixon and Ford administrations responded with policies (including fencerow-to-fencerow planting, free-trade rules and food-regulatory flexibility) that created huge surpluses and made some foods (especially some industrial sugars and fats) so darn cheap that food companies began using them in everything. They began cranking out their “new and improved” foods in huge quantities – and at very attractive prices. Lower grain prices also resulted in lower meat and dairy prices, ending shortages, but also making it tougher for local farmers to make a living farming wholesome foods in a sustainable manner. Agribusiness picked up the slack.

It was, in a sense, a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and it gave birth to the double-headed quality/quantity monster we face now.

The first head to show its face was “quality”: As cheap ingredients flooded the market, calorie-dense convenience foods, TV dinners, fast foods and an astonishing variety of snacks and novelty items began springing up everywhere. Most of them were full of industrial sugars and fats (like corn syrup, fructose and hydrogenated palm and soybean oils) that could be combined to create many appealing sensual properties (aroma, color, mouthfeel).

These ingredients offered great value and long shelf life (a food manufacturer’s best friend). Many also turned out to have exceptional propensities for stimulating appetite and encouraging insulin-resistance and obesity. But back in the ’70s and early ’80s, obesity wasn’t nearly the concern it is today. Food manufacturers knew what
consumers wanted – convenience and low prices – and they gave it to them.

By combining these ingredients with flavor additives and putting them through innovative cooking processes, the food industry had found a seemingly magic formula for creating prepared-meal and snack products that American consumers loved. Such manufactured foods and snacks quickly took on a bigger and more central role in many busy consumers’ diets, replacing more nutritious and less-refined homemade fare.

It didn’t take long for the monster’s second head – “quantity” – to emerge. As food technology improved to make the best use of the glut of inexpensive raw materials, and as food manufacturers ended up with gobs of product on their hands and an increasing amount of competition in the marketplace, marketers got savvier and more aggressive about promoting their wares.

They needed to sell more stuff. So portion sizes got bigger and the offers got more tempting. Meanwhile, commercial flavor-and-texture enhancing became a fine art. Funny thing – you just couldn’t get enough of these new foods! Don’t worry, said the manufacturers, “we’ll make more!” And they did.

Initially, manufacturers and restaurateurs had to concoct a way of nudging us past our preconceived notions of “normal” portions. They had to devise strategies for getting us to eat twice as much without making us feel like gluttons.

It didn’t take them long. Value-meal deals and super-sizing was born. Well, of course: We weren’t piggish, slovenly and gluttonous – we were thrifty, pragmatic and powerful! The bargains and offers became irresistible.

In the past few years, satiety studies have demonstrated that the amount of food it takes to satisfy our appetites is directly proportional to the amount we’re served, (see Web Extra! link at top of this page for more on that). But we didn’t know that then. As a result, there was basically no stopping us, and no turning back.

For the American food industry, the news was all good. It was spending less on raw ingredients and making more than ever on its finished products. For average Americans, as Critser points out, the conclusion to this story was largely inevitable: “A plenitude of cheap, abundant and tasty calories had arrived. It was time to eat.”

Feeding the American Landscape

Even as the food industry’s overuse of concentrated forms of fructose, hydrogenated fats and other new-fangled ingredients were, as Critser puts it, “skewing the national metabolism toward fat storage,” its outlets for these ingredients were multiplying.

Fast-food outlets and convenience stores started springing up everywhere. Back in the inconvenient ’50s, finding food involved going to a grocery store, a restaurant or (gasp!) home. Corner markets were few and far between. But by the ’80s, you could grab a snack anywhere, anytime.

Drive-thru windows became ubiquitous and made swinging in for a burger and fries easier than ever. Gas stations and convenience stores remodeled to create space for whole aisles of snack foods, also making them highly visible and largely unavoidable.

Vending machines became standard issue in most schools and offices. All kinds of foods were repackaged and reformulated to make them microwaveable, portable, bite-sized and generally easier to eat “on the go” – which really meant anywhere but at the table (while driving, watching TV, working at your desk, etc.).

The sheer number and variety of snack foods also increased dramatically. In his research, Critser discovered that the number of new candy and snack products, which had remained stable throughout the ’60s and ’70s at about 250 a year, began to rise dramatically in the ’80s. By the mid-1980s the food industry was turning out 1,000 a year; by the late ’80s, it was closer to 2,000. In 1999, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a chart that showed this trend closely mirroring the rise of obesity.

Meanwhile, of course, thanks to the technology boom, we became less active in our work and entertainments, and more inclined to munch. It’s tough to feed your face while you’re playing sports, collecting stamps or making birdhouses. It’s easy while sitting in front of a video monitor or home-entertainment center. This is particularly true if you have a microwave, which makes preparing and eating a thousand-calorie snack such a fast proposition you barely have to think about it. Still hungry? Just hop up and make another batch of microwave popcorn – it only takes 30 seconds.

We all intuitively understand that eating was healthier back when people personally prepared what they ate and then sat down as a family to eat it. But we don’t always realize how much difference our culture of convenience has made in our eating habits. When you cook something on the stove, you have to get up and assemble and prepare the ingredients. You have to think about what you’re doing. You get to stir and taste it while it cooks. Your appetite has a chance to adjust, your senses have a chance to take it all in. When you eat, you know exactly what you are eating, how it was prepared and how much of each ingredient is in there.

None of this is true with prepared food. You get the urge to eat, and the food can be in your hand and down your gullet before your conscious mind can register it.

There’s no time for second thoughts and no time for the craving to pass. The food is right there in front of you. There’s no “please pass the salt” necessary. The salt and sugar are already in it. No need to ask for a second helping. The second, third and fourth servings are right there in the bag, box, or freezer, waiting.

Stopping the Madness

Can we blame the government or the food industry for this sorry state of affairs? Sure, but government will tell you it only sets policies, distributes funding and influences trends in reaction to the voice of the voter (that’s us!). The food industry, meanwhile, will tell you it has a revenue-maximizing mandate from its shareholders (who might also be us).

And then of course, there’s the fact that most of us think we’ve got better things to do than cook. Kraft’s “latest effort to respond to consumer demand for convenience” is a product called Easy Mac. As the Kraft Web site explains: “This innovative product requires only the use of a bowl and a microwave, so today’s older kids can ‘cook’ Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on their own, independent of their busy parents.”

This, we are told, is precisely what we want. On the other hand, if these “you asked for it” answers don’t satisfy you, you’re not alone. To date, the federal government has let most of its food-related decisions be guided much more powerfully by big-business interests than by public-health concerns. And, even if you do hold some measly amount of stock in a soda- or snack-food company, you are probably not the one directly pressuring them to find the cheapest possible ingredients or the one getting enormously rich off their profits. But you do have a voice, and your voting and investing choices will be noted if you let them be heard loudly enough.

Many big-name food companies are now spawning or acquiring smaller, healthier labels (H. J. Heinz currently owns 20 percent of Hain, the “healthy-foods” group that owns dozens of health-oriented and organic brands including Health Valley, Arrowhead Mills, and Garden of Eatin’). After more than a year of consecutively falling monthly profits, even McDonald’s has started testing healthier items (like Premium Salads) on its menus. This spring, ironically, it also launched a new “Winning Time Game.” It offers “Ultimate Prize Packages to Help Consumers Enjoy Their Time More.” As noted, probably not a good idea to look to business for the solutions.

The government, meanwhile, has finally recognized the enormous fiscal costs of having 60-plus percent of its population wearing plus sizes and has finally declared obesity a full-scale epidemic. It is now funding obesity-fighting research and casting about for ways to educate and empower citizens to take better care of themselves. It’s even lending a polite (though not terribly open) ear to experts like Yale University’s Kelly Brownell, who’d like to see a state-levied “fat tax” on unhealthy food items to help fund a public-awareness campaign promoting healthier eating habits.

But again, don’t hold your breath. According to Critser, “the trend in most state capitals, increasingly beholden to special interests, has been in exactly the opposite direction.”

So what can you do? You’re doing it now! Understanding what you are up against is really the first and most important step.

Keep your eyes and ears open. The cultural forces at work are strong, but once you know what to watch for, you can become a much savvier consumer and citizen. You can also get more vocal about asking for what you really want. (If you’re not sure, compare and contrast the core agendas of, say, www.slowfoodusa.org with its restaurant- and food-manufacturer-sponsored nemesis – the dubiously named www.consumerfreedom.com.)

And then, finally, there is the power of you and your mighty fork! Once you’ve got a grip on it, you’ll find it a powerful tool. You can use it to draw a line in the sand. You can use it as a divining device to tell you which foods are edible, nourishing and satisfying, and which are merely for sale. You can wield it to slay double-headed monsters of all kinds.

And when you want to, of course, you can put it down.

Pilar Gerasimo is Experience Life's editor in chief.

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