We Are What We Eat

Part I: Where Have We Come From?

In 1886, long before fast food outlets would become a mainstay of American culture, a little known druggist by the name of John Pemberton used extracts of cocoa leaves and kola nuts, sugar, and a few other ingredients to produce a syrup. He had hoped it would be a cure for headaches.  After the business was sold to Willis Venable due to Pemberton’s failing health, it was discovered that combining the syrup with soda water made for a refreshing drink.  Coca-Cola had emerged.  By 1900, revenues topped 400,000 dollars annually.  Those in charge quickly realized that advertising was the key, and began to invest over 25% of their annual budget on marketing their newfound delight.  Around the same time, thousands of miles away, the Pepsi-Cola company was finding its way.  By 1939, Pepsi-Cola’s net earnings would rise to over 5.5 million dollars.

As soda companies continued their epic rise, the fast food world was quickly growing from its early rise in the Roaring Twenties. As more people owned automobiles, the idea of going out for a “quick bite” became increasingly appealing and feasible.  The 1950’s expansion of the highway system made urban flight possible, and restaurants began to pop up in new suburban communities. Once the “baby boom” became a reality post World War II, it seemed there was no stopping this new version of the American dream.  In a culture where speed and efficiency were idolized, it was a match made in heaven.  Not only did the culture support the trend, but the trend gradually became part of the culture.  McDonald and other companies quickly realized that it wasn’t just the affordable and convenient food that would sell it all, but the entire experience. Children learned to love the meal that made them feel “happy” even before they clambered over the playground just out the door.  Ads taught them that the soft drinks and fast food they coveted made them attractive, young, cutting-edge, and athletic, even if the end result fell far short.   Studies showed that children felt fries tasted better in a McDonald’s wrapper than a plain container, even if they remained unknowingly the same.  Even the side of the Styrofoam cups had phrases that padded egos, congratulating you on the sophistication and charm that led you to them.

Like soft drinks, the key to success was in the advertising. McDonald’s would eventually come to spend 1.4 billion dollars annually on marketing its products.  Today, there are over 8,000 restaurants in 101 countries.  The McDonald’s in Moscow’s Red Square became the largest of its kind when it was built.  Police were called in for crowd control after the opening of a restaurant in Minsk led to a mad rush of 4,000 Belarusians hungry for a taste of Americana.  Worldwide sales eventually topped 32 billion dollars a year, 15 billion coming from sales outside the United States.  Three new McDonald’s restaurants open somewhere every day.  Although each retains the iconic McDonald’s identity, they also cater to the local market, serving vegetarian burgers in Holland, tatsuta chicken sandwiches in Japan, and wine in France.  Their cleanliness and family friendly atmosphere are seen as a respite for some, a bane of American imperialism by others.

As the insatiable desire of more for less continued, American’s began spending a smaller percentage of their annual income on food (adjusted for inflation) than previous generations. As noted the book, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, American’s today spend less than ten percent of their disposable income on food – less than any other group in history.  The French spend approximately twenty percent, the Chinese fifty percent. American’s also spend less time preparing it – a meager thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up. While the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has climbed above the Consumer-price index, carbonated drinks and sugar and sweets showed the opposite trend, becoming cheaper than ever before.  Americans began consuming more and moving less, defying the immutable laws of the calorie cycle.  Soft drinks stopped becoming a special treat, instead turning into a daily staple.  As more than half of all children consumed soft drinks daily (and almost ¾ of all boys), youth and adults were finding out this habit was leading them to much more than a tasty indulgence.  Studies began to show that a soft drink a day was a 10+ pound a year habit. Estimates are that youth currently drink carbonated beverages at a 2:1 ratio compared to milk.  Soda sales per person went from 40 gallons per year in 1985 to 53 gallons in 2000.

Once our special treats became our daily eats, we realized that we were no longer limited by the size of our ceramic plate. Bagels that just twenty years ago averaged three inches in diameter became six inches.  French fries that were once 2.4 ounces per portion skyrocketed to 6.9 ounces.  And sodas that were 6.5 ounces more than tripled to twenty ounces.  Just in these three food items we had suddenly picked up almost 800 more calories, with dinner yet to be served.  All the while, our sluggish trend continued, not just because of the food that was weighing us down, but because of all the wonderful conveniences that made our lives so much better.

But somewhere along the way, this American dream began to sizzle, only to eventually burst into flames. The rates of overweight teens began to triple. Over sixty percent of adults were labeled as overweight, with almost ¾ of males attaining this dubious distinction. Type 2 diabetes rates soared, threatening (along with other factors) to make the generation born after 2000 the first one since the Civil War to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of greater than 19 percent. By 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent. In the United States, being overweight had become the “new normal.” The sale of oversized coffins became a very profitable business.  Experts predicted that unless the obesity crisis was halted, our health care system would collapse under the weight of its own excess.

And so once again, we were left with a harsh reality. What seemed too good to be true, had in fact, been even worse than we would have predicted.  We became our own worst enemies in ways that profitable companies had known we would.  Although we attempted to rationalize and try to make ourselves feel better about the new “healthy” choices we were making, it turns out that “low fat” or “non-fat” was a lot more fat than we needed after all. Worst of all, our kids had bought into the same dream.  It was the kind of dream brilliantly advertised recently by the king of sodas.  Its commercial told of a tale where one young guy, fresh out of school with no experience, could have it all – money, happiness, big toys, unattached beautiful women at his beck and call, stocks/bonds, promotions – all perfectly captured by the zero-calorie, delicious, refreshing drink that carried seemingly no price at all.

The lie continues on…but are our kids even aware?

Part II: Sifting Through the Ingredients for Change

Today we live in a world where food and advice are plentiful. It doesn’t seem that long ago that restaurants in our communities were largely confined to small locales or stood out as oases in residential areas or vast farmland.  Beyond the restaurants, our supermarkets have become so large and offer countless types and qualities of foods. We are often left to search aisle upon aisle in a way that our ancestors and those in developing countries could not imagine.  With the proliferation of food, professional advice has taken a similar course.  The mass of information related to diets and healthy eating could easily span this world many times over.  In some ways, we can’t help but be desensitized to it all.  Many people lament that just as one research study shows that carbohydrates are the threat to our diets, another will argue that it is the fat content, or just even the number of calories itself.  And, so it seems we often get stuck, not only in trying to control our urges, but in trying to use advice in a responsible way so that our children will grow up with healthy bodies and healthy habits.  As always, more options seem alluring.  But these options almost always leave us with less time, unless we can strategically work through it all. The hope is that this article will focus on the few areas that matter and are realistic in our busy lives with kids.

Starting at the beginning, it is important to know that taste buds develop very early, typically at eighteen months and younger or even in utero based on what a mother eats during pregnancy. In 2002, the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) found that by nineteen months of age, 1/3 of toddlers did not eat fruit of any kind.  These same children were eating more dessert and candy than fruit.  The most common vegetable eaten was french fries.  The trouble with taste buds is that it often takes fifteen times or more for a food to be introduced before young children will even try it.  Parents will often say that kids don’t like a food based on just a few trials, and move onto foods (e.g., chicken nuggets) that are readily consumed, both further restricting the diet and creating an unhealthy pattern.  It serves to suggest that most meals with young children should include foods that are preferred, and ones that are “a work in progress.”  It also seems that we should start with very small quantities of trial foods, and be willing to tolerate the wastefulness that surely will occur at very young ages.  Treatments of even severe feeding disorders indicate that almost all kids can be taught to consume a wider variety of healthy foods through behavioral means than previously assumed.  One example is presenting a less preferred food in between offerings of preferred foods.

As our kids grow older, it is important to know that beyond water, and perhaps milk, no other drinks have a necessary place in our children’s diets. Even fruit drinks, which can provide certain nutrients, can be easily replaced through regular consumption of produce.  However, estimates suggest that for teens, 1/3 to 1/2 of their calories come from liquids.  Children and adults often regard soft drinks, especially diet, as empty calories.  They are anything but, as people are slowly beginning to realize.  So, even if they don’t seem overly excited about drinking it at first, it really behooves us to get our kids used to water from a very early age,.  Once they become acclimated to this, soft drinks and other tasty beverages can be easily used as a reward, not a daily staple.  This same idea applies to all other foods.  If sweet foods are restricted both in frequency and amount, then they become much more motivating as a reward because children do not have ready access to them.  But if children are used to eating sweet foods, they will show much less motivation to earn them as a reward.  Even worse, withholding them will often result in more frequent behavioral problems.

As our children begin to assume more of a role in their own nutrition, it is critical to teach the lessons of proximity. When it comes to choosing healthy options, the first line of defense always occurs outside the home, both in the supermarket and the restaurant.  Those who eat out frequently have to work especially hard to choose healthy options.  But in the home, the most powerful deterrent to over-snacking and unhealthy eating is simply if the food is not available. We all have cravings at times.  Rarely do we leave the comfortable confines of our home to seek out the food we desire.  We will, however, leave the couch to head to the cupboards, if we know the food is there. It is just too easy.  Even easier, though, is when the food is available around the house (e.g., in candy dishes next to the couch). We can pretty much guarantee that there is little hope of regulating our food intake when this occurs.  Although a cooler under the recliner and a candy dish on the coffee table sound quite appealing, we can rest assured that this is a recipe for misfortune when it comes to managing the demands of our diet.  A traditional fruit bowl in its place might be a better alternative.  Proximity and availability can become both our best advocate and our greatest challenge in the area of managing our patterns of consumption.

Those living today can hardly imagine that our predecessors survived without a microwave. Warmed-up, rushed food often finds its way into our daily meals as the art of cooking and use of natural foods seem increasingly endangered in this country.  Although made from scratch food may seem like a treat, it used to be the only way to eat.  At the center of it all is the use of non-processed versus processed ingredients.  Although experts may disagree about what exactly constitutes a food in each category, one simple way is to look at the ingredients on the side of the package.  If they can be grown, or are directly derived from a natural substance (e.g., whole wheat flour), then it could be considered non-processed.  If the ingredient is not readily derived from nature (e.g., dextrose, trisodium phosphate, high fructose corn syrup), then it could be seen as processed.  Research indicates that the more you incorporate non-processed foods into your diet, the more likely your physical and psychological health will improve.  However, once our kids start eating heavily processed diets, the switch over is not an easy one.  One simple way to start is to try and have one non-processed meal per day.  Breakfast is the easiest, and maybe the best one to do.  An easy idea is to have rolled oats (not packaged) with your choice of fruit or legumes (blueberries and walnuts are a particularly nutrient-packed option), with an optional natural sweetener (e.g., honey).  Not a bad beginning to the day.

When we begin to focus on the patterns of what, where, and when we eat, we begin to see that food really can provide for greater community and conversation. A greater rhythm to our day may emerge, and food may seem less of an inconvenience and more as something to be grateful for. Many cite cost as a big deterrent to more healthy changes.  But as Michael Pollan notes in his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

While it is true that many people simply can’t afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we’ve somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority.

Who knows what will transpire? But at least food will start looking and tasting like food – real food – once again.

For more tips and ideas, go to www.choosemyplate.gov

Part III: Beneath the Icing

Year ago, not long after I met the man who would eventually become my father-in-law, I heard him utter the phrase, “I only eat to fill a void.” It had come adapted from a fellow coworker. It would not be the last time that phrase would be spoken in my presence. As the years passed, my initial interpretation was basically a monastic one, in that the calories he took in simply replaced those that had left, leaving a hollow in his stomach. In many ways, the phrase seemed to imply that food functioned much as gasoline did for automobiles.

More recently, though, questions about this statement began to surface in my mind. What exactly is the void we are trying to fill? All of us, at different points in our life, use food to fill many different voids to some extent. The voids not only correspond to a physical need, but also our needs expressed through boredom, emotion, re-experiencing, and stress relief. Taken to the extreme, comfort derived through food for these particular states of mind can become harmful in itself when it creates conditions of unhealthiness and social isolation.  Overeating that becomes a long-term prescription for relief ends up creating its own void that needs to be constantly filled.

But if food was there to fill a void, it seems to serve that the opposite could also be true. Digesting this idea further, if food can be used to help fill a chasm, then it should just as well be a tool to build a mountain. But in order for this to occur, the food itself must become a mechanism to something much deeper, much more important than the calories and instantaneous delight it provides. It also must become more than the bodily image it helps promote, the numbers – in pounds, waist size – it helps to attain, and the newfound praise it may help evoke. One of the biggest challenges with food is that it so often tied to the element of control. Those who work with obesity patients know the struggle that comes with helping people gain control of their daily habits, in order to regain control over their body. However, clinicians who work with those who struggle with eating disorders face almost the opposite problem. Food becomes the ultimate means of control over the image they hold for themselves, often as they feel a loss of control over other aspects in their life.

All of this makes you wonder. What if control over food ceased to become the primary issue? What if we looked at the food we eat in a much more hopeful, more productive way? If all of this seems rather abstract, let’s start with an example we already know (see November 2012 edition). We know that we can teach 4-year-olds to look at a pretzel either as an enticing, desirable object or a long, thin branch. In doing this, Mischel and other researchers in the 1960’s found that the 4-year-olds who see their pretzel as a branch will on average delay eating it by more than eight minutes than those who simply see it as the tasty object of their desire.

Let’s take this idea a little further in seeing how food can take on a whole different meaning. Just what do we want out of our food, beyond the obvious calories we need? Do we want it to enhance the celebration of truly joyous occasions in our life? If so, food can certainly do this for us, but only if the daily edibles we consume are not the same ones that become part of our celebration.  If desserts and rich foods are in abundance every day, then our celebration feast will seem rather mundane.  Do we want foods to help us feel better and have more energy so that we can enjoy others more?  If so, there are an abundance of foods that can serve this function.  But if we fill our body with junk, just as filling a car with stale gasoline or sludgy oil, chances are that we are sabotaging our chance to attain this very goal.  What if we want to take on a deeply meaningful, spiritual journey, whether it be a fifty mile run or a trip to a long desired, isolated location?  Again, certain foods are designed to help our bodies attain endurance and strength way beyond our current capacity.  But if we do not see food in this way, we will only fill our stomachs with those things that will immobilize us.  What if we wanted to be less anxious, so that we could enjoy each moment more?  Again, there are foods to eat and ones to delete (especially those that are processed).  And what if we wanted to gain greater self-control over our own desires, in the name of religion or health, in ways that would translate into other areas of our life (e.g., curbing negative habits).  Guess what – psychological research has shown that the discipline of fasting (along with other measures of self-control) can lead to a greater ability to delay our immediate need for gratification in many areas, beyond what it does for our deep pursuit of faith.

For a second, grab the closest food nearby. Imagine yourself as a 4-year-old, and then imagine that the food you see is not the ingredients on the side of the package, and not even a different object, but a portal to a life of which you either desire, admire, or tire.  Now put it down, and step away for a few moments.  What do you envision on the other end?  Do you see your loved ones, your future, your goals, your hopes, or do you see your fears, your insecurities, your failures, your traumas, or your broken relationships.  Are you trying to fill a void or build a life?  Are the calories empty or full of promise?

This may appear exhausting and strange to many. I am certainly not suggesting that you sit down to dinner every night, and ask each food group on your plate what they mean to you.  But what I am suggesting is we take a conscious approach to our eating, and not fool ourselves into thinking that the food we eat is simply a neutral substance. Being conscious should not be confused with obsessing and over-analyzing, or not allowing yourself to simply “let go” at times.  Being conscious is not about stressing about each bite, but rather being aware of your patterns of eating so that you can genuinely enjoy where food takes you.  We must do this for ourselves, but we should teach our children the same thing. Much of the reason that we fail at the goals in our life, whether it relates to food or not, is because they lack deep meaning tied to the daily habits that can sustain them.  If suddenly food stops becoming the enemy, and starts becoming the ally, then a whole new world emerges.  And then, a candy bar remains a candy bar, but a sweet potato becomes one more step to a calling that grows deep inside…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *