Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obesity, "Stuffed Nation", and further thoughts on food

Jenn, our very own Leftover Queen and founder of the Foodie Blogroll, has brought up a subject which has been on my mind for years. It was prompted by the book "Stuffed" by Hank Cardello, who is also the author of the blog Stuffed Nation. Jenn has asked us to write about our thoughts on the escalating obesity rates in the U.S. as well as food policy in this nation.While I have not yet read Mr. Cardello's book, I'm someone who has been in the "alternative" health care field for the last 18 years, and have had lots of time to think about food and health. I have had many people call me to ask if acupuncture will help them lose weight. (The short answer is "yes", but the real answer is more complicated than that - perhaps a subject for a future post.) People are truly searching for ways to lose weight and are willing to put their dollars to work to do this. Snack food companies have understood this for years, which is why the supermarket aisles are filled with fat free and sugar free foods as well as "diet" sodas. So why is it, with so many diet foods at our disposal, are we gaining so much weight?

For many years, I'd tell people that the answer was petroleum. Petroleum, you ask? Yes. People will get into a $25,000 car, move it 8 blocks to the supermarket, and then go in to buy a fat free or sugar free snack food, hoping it will help them to lose weight. In Europe, where people have paid over $6 per gallon for gasoline for many years, they walk. They walk in the winter and summer. They walk in the rain, the snow, the heat and humidity. I remember years ago when traveling by myself in southern France, I met a woman at a restaurant in Arles. She invited me to sit with her as we were both dining by ourselves. After dinner we took a walk together and I noticed that she had a great figure for a woman "of a certain age". When I asked her if she belonged to a gym she laughed. "Mais non!" She told me that she walked everywhere.

I live in southern California, where walking is looked upon with some suspicion. I walk anyway. I came back from a grocery store which is about a mile and a half from my home, carrying my groceries. A neighbor looked at me with surprise and asked "Did you walk to Henry's???" "Yes." And I wondered if this woman would consider it strange to walk 3 miles if she was in the mountains on a hike? I doubt it. Just strange to do it where there's pavement.

So petroleum plays a big role in our obesity, because it enables us to easily move from here to there without having to expend much effort. (Read "calories"). We take the elevator. We drive the car. The guys who are out there doing yard work are using those gas powered blowers to blow the leaves around, rather than an old-fashioned rake, which requires more effort. If you've seen the movie "Wall-e", you can see the exaggeration of what petroleum has done to us. We have become rounder.

Another reason we are gaining weight as a nation is the subsidies we pay our farmers for corn and soy products. Corn is what they use to fatten cattle. High fructose corn syrup is what they put in almost anything out there that's sweet. In other words, we have marched ourselves into a national feedlot, happily eating our corn and growing fat. Farm subsidies are part of our national policy, and I can imagine that there'd be a cogent argument in favor of subsidies. I won't get into that now, but there is something called the Law of Unintended Consequences. Whether you're in favor or against subsidies, it must be recognized that where we, as a nation, put our dollars affects all of us. And when we make it a national policy to subsidize certain crops, it makes it seem that they are cheaper. When we perceive that these foods are cheaper, we will find more and more ways to use them, whether or not that perception is based in reality. Taxes pay for subsidies, after all, so it's a question of whether we pay more in taxes or more at the supermarket.

And finally, there's the way many of us eat. I mentioned in my last post that I had seen the movie "Julie and Julia". When Julia Child was writing her book, fast food restaurants either did not exist, or if they did they were in their infancy. Women, for the most part, cooked. Meals were made primarily from scratch. "Convenience foods" were an outgrowth of WWII. They came from the rations that the soldiers used in the field - the dried and powdered foods that were developed to feed the troops. After the war, food manufacturers tried to sell these foods to women, but initially women rejected them. They didn't want to "just add water". After some research was done, it was discovered that if women had to do more than add water - if they had to add an egg and some oil to the cake mix - they were more willing to buy the convenience food. It was probably the first "crossover" concept in the food industry, and it was an enormous success.

Another post-war development was the electric (and gas) refrigerator, which replaced the ice box. As refrigerators developed, their freezer components went from the size of a couple of ice cube trays to what we see today. All of this invited the food industry to create newer convenience foods, and today we have what I'm sure must be a multi-billion dollar industry which has the capacity to feed many people for a relatively low cost. The hidden cost, of course, is the consequences of eating all this processed food - most of which contains corn and soy, as well as ingredients which are unpronounceable. If you can't pronounce something, how do you know it's food? Will your body recognize it as food? Or is it the equivalent to putting 20 octane gas in your tank? Would you consider putting 20 octane fuel in your tank? I doubt it. But most people are more than willing to put "20 octane fuel" in their bodies. Then they wonder why they don't feel well, and where this "dis-ease" came from. Perhaps what we put into our bodies has something to do with what we get out of them?

The increasing popularity of the "slow food" movement, and the idea of eating locally produced foods is something which would make grandma smile in her grave. She'd recognize it for what it is - common sense. What we are discovering is that common sense produces some darned good eating. We are being told that it's not really possible to make the leap to common sense right now - that it's too far from where we are to the common sense of eating home made food produced locally. I'm not convinced of that. It seems to me that one of the "silver linings" of the recent economic downturn is that more and more people are learning about gardening, and how to grow their own food. Will it replace modern agribusiness? No. Of course not. I would never underestimate the power of the money behind modern agribusiness. But I'm pleased to see an increasing number of community gardens which are springing up. And I'm thinking that at the very least, the kids who are getting to help their parents out in these gardens will make an important connection between the food they eat and the land it comes from.

I'm reminded of going to a local, high-end appliance store when I was remodeling my house back in 2003. A salesman was walking me around the store and showing me all the different appliances which I would need in my new home - stoves, refrigerators, faucets, showerheads etc. As he whizzed down a hallway with me in tow, I stopped in front of a gorgeous stove. "What's that?" I asked, breathlessly taking in this gleaming steel object with copper railings and a flat top with concentric steel flat circular plates set into the top. "$35,000," he answered, as he whizzed off. Later, I wandered back to have a closer look. I believe it was a La Cornu stove, with 2 ovens. He told me that the way you adjusted the heat on the top was to move the pot closer to the center of the rings for higher heat, and further away from it to reduce the heat. "Just like my friend Julie's wood cook stove", I thought. And then I laughed. To think - modern technology has advanced us to the point of cooking on a wood cook stove without the wood, and at a much, much higher price.

Our taste in food just might be going back to the time when grandma was a girl, too. If we can keep the price down to under $11 per tomato, we just might be on to something!

One last comment. For those of you who think you do not know how to cook, or live with someone who thinks they don't know how to cook, I have a wonderful story. A friend of mine's husband had his best friend visit from Ohio. The friend made dinner for all of us. My friend's husband looked at his old friend and asked incredulously "You know how to cook???" "No" said the friend. "But I know how to read."


Thistlemoon said...

Wonderful post, Toni! Thank you so much for participating in this, I think it is good to get the conversation going, and your perspective as an alternative health care practitioner is very valuable!

Unknown said...

And thank you, Jenn, for stimulating this conversation. You've provided a valuable forum for this discussion.

Thistlemoon said...

Thanks Toni! I just wish more bloggers would blog abut it! I am surprised with the lack of participation. :-(

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

What a wonderful post, Toni! Michael Pollan had a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Big Food vs. Big Insurance , in which he said the food industry was as much in need of reforming as was our health care system if we truly want to improve our nation's health. Regarding walking, it really is a cultural thing. Chicago is something of a walking city, so you get in the habit. On the other hand, St. Louis is not. There, you don't walk to get somewhere, you take a walk. When we lived there and wanted to go to the video store, two long blocks away, Marion would sometimes ask if I wanted to walk. My answer was usually an indignant "No!" Here in Chicago, walks of eight or ten blocks--often to run errands or get to public transportation--are just getting warmed up for us now.

Eleanor said...

Pollan is right, as usual! The debate over the cost of universal health coverage ignores the elephant in the room: it would be so much cheaper to educate people about healthy eating and exercise, and make those things an accepted part of our culture, the way they are in France.

Good post, Toni.

Unknown said...

Terry - You're so right about the fact that walking is a cultural issue. It's a curious thing - what is it about one city that makes it a walking city, while another one is not, I wonder?

Eleanor - Thanks for stopping by and adding your words of wisdom!

Susan said...

All great points, Toni. I think severe stress also plays a huge role in our health/weight issues. When you're worrying about job security, the economy, the kids' friends, the mortgage, and other critical issues, there's really no energy (willpower) to think a healthy meal through. Fast food fills the belly, and maybe even the soul (temporarily), but at a great price.

Unknown said...

That's how I learned how to cook. I read a LOT of cookbooks. I have more cookbooks than history or fun books in my library.

Missy said...

I just came across your blog randomly today, and only read this one post, but it was a very worthwhile read! Wonderful insight (or should I say, common sense?). Thanks for blogging about something worthwhile.