March 15, 2007
Don’t let foodies eat up all the fun
(Page 2 - Previous Page)He also enjoyed a great variety of ethnic cuisines, becoming familiar with the varieties of Thai cuisine, Korean cooking and even a Korean version of Chinese food.
As part of his research, Glassner also talked to food chemists, nutritionists, and business executives in the food industry. In his book Glassner shares with us the surprises he encountered along the way, such as the great chefs working for McDonalds and Burger King; or how natural foods can include "natural" filler, such as wood pulp, and can be more processed than foods that do not carry that label. Similarly, Glassner recounts how Americans spend $2 billion a year on food with added vitamins, minerals or herbs that provide no proven health benefit and may interfere with prescribed drugs.
"I'm interested in where these ideas come from?" Glassner said. "Who benefits from them?"
Would you be shocked, shocked, shocked to learn that the beneficiaries are politicians, advocacy groups, agri-business and product marketers -- each of whom has a large stake in having us behave in a particular way? Glassner details how each profits from a shift in dietary attitudes. Make no mistake: Billions of dollars are at stake in getting us to eat certain products.
Glassner also devotes a chapter to McDonald's and fast food restaurants, which, as the K-Fed Super Bowl ad indicates, are routinely mocked and blamed for everything from obesity to the breakdown of family values. Glassner makes a compelling argument for the value inherent in "value meals" for the poor, the harried, the homeless. And we all know how good the French fries are.
Which brings us to Glassner's final chapter and the question on all our minds: "What made America fat?"
Glassner asks some good questions: In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the average diet consisted of all the bad foods that we are told not to eat today. (I can still recall the oil sizzling as my mother placed the veal cutlets, soaked in egg and milk and covered in breadcrumbs, in the cast-iron skillet to make my favorite meal of wienerschnitzel). Yet there was no epidemic of obesity. So what changed?
It's not fast food. Glassner shows that the proliferation of fast food establishments preceded the obesity epidemic by a decade.
Glassner suggests one important difference: People smoke less. According to studies cited by Glassner, during the period obesity rates shot up (the 1980s-1990s), the number of smokers declined by a third -- and former smokers on average gain 10 to 20 pounds after quitting. So this may account for some of the national weight gain. Conversely, is it also possible that people stopping smoking is the reason for a decrease in heart disease (as much or more so than eating low fat foods)?
But what about childhood obesity, you may ask.
I asked Glassner this very question. "No question there are more sugary drinks and candies," he said. But the question remains: "What has dramatically changed?" Glassner believes that one big change is that kids today enjoy "a lot less physical activity." One reason for this harkens back to Glassner's last book, "The Culture of Fear"
"Parents are afraid of letting children out of their sight," he said. Decades ago children spent their free time outside playing and exploring. Today overprotective parents are afraid to let their children play by themselves outdoors for fear they will be abducted or be put in harm's way.
Finally, Glassner suggests the possibility that for both adults and children, our culture of diets and diet foods may be responsible. Any diet that restricts certain foods that our body (or our psyche) craves may cause us to binge on them and other foods. Could years of yo-yoing from fad diet to fad diet have resulted in the increase in obesity? As a group of Harvard and Stanford scientists put it: Dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain. I certainly can believe that.
In my own lifetime, I can recall attempting the Royal Canadian Air Force Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, Atkins, The Zone and the South Beach Diet. I have watched national crazes over grapefruit diets, cabbage diets, even ice cream diets. I have seen waves of food pronouncements on red meat, carbohydrates, dairy products, grains, pastas and fruits and vegetables.
Over the years, I have lost hundreds of pounds -- actually, the same 20 to 30 pounds over and over again. Although rationally I realize that my body is genetically programmed to give me the winning physique of my Eastern European forebears who were short and stout of bearing, I still cling to the notion that there is a better-idealized version of myself to achieve (the only difference being that the weight at which I once began my diet is now the weight that I strive to reach). But given the positive effects of statins on lowering cholesterol, is yo-yo dieting more dangerous than enjoying the foods you like? Where does this leave us?
I am reminded of the old joke about the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose doctor tells him to go on a diet. He goes to his favorite trattoria and asks his favorite waiter: "Tell me which is the healthiest sandwich for me to order?"
To which the waiter answers: "Maestro, for you, the healthiest sandwich is ... half a sandwich."