An Obesogenic Society and Diet

A simple lunch: Broad Bean Soup with veggies

If you have fought the battle of the bulge, you know how hard it is to lose weight. It is even harder to maintain it. We may blame carbs, we may blame fats, we may blame a lot of things. In fact, what we tend to do is blame ourselves. If you had more will power…if you just ate less, if you exercised more. It is always about the individual, never mind that even three generations ago most of the population was thin.

So what is going on? Why is it that Americans are as heavy as they have ever been, on average? Yes, this is a national security risk, since many young people no longer qualified to serve in the armed forces. Or for that matter in EMS, or police, or the fire service. There are other jobs where these extra pounds will also put people at added risk of serious heart attacks, let’s just say anything that is active can land you in the ER if you are obese.

So, it is time to look at this not from the blame the individual perspective, but actually from our society, and our food system. There are steps that we all can take, but quite frankly, we need a society-wide change in attitude. We need to make certain things, such as a food system that pushes processed foods on the population, less acceptable.

This starts with the school lunch. School lunches in the United States need to be filling, and cheap. However, we have failed the test since our school lunches are usually full of processed things, to keep it cheap. And outside a few school districts that tend to be whiter and wealthier, they leave a lot to be desired.

Meaning, young people start life eating classics in the Standard American Diet that are higher in salt, fats, and calories. While Michelle Obama tried to get healthier lunches to become standard, she faced resistance because a lot of companies depend on these school lunches to create future customers. It was not about present health, but future customer growth.

If for example, your school cafeteria started offering fresh vegetables and fresh fruits, and locally made food, General Mills would lose future customers. They also sell things like Yoplait yogurt to schools, in kiddie portions. That particular yogurt is more properly desert. It is loaded with sugar.

Of course, they include high sugar cereals, pizzas, and other highly processed foods. Ergo, the palate of young students grows up used to these foods. They become customers for life.

These have grown over the last forty years. Your mind is used to thinking one bagel is one portion, for example. Unless these are mini bagels, chances are this single piece is two to three portions. This is by design. And this has led to overeating by most Americans. The same goes for things like muffins, and other pastries.

If you think other things are not a problem, almost everything in our pre-portioned, highly processed food system has that problem. It extends to restaurant foods as well, where servings are enough to feed two to three people on one plate.

Yes, you can look at nutritional information and realize just how little an actual portion is, or like most Americans ignore it. The other thing that has grown over the course of the last few decades is the size of plates. At one time a modern-day dinner plate was considered a serving plate, used for things like mashed potatoes, vegetables, or even meats. What we think of salad plates used to be dinner plates. This translates to about 300 extra calories on the plate, on average.

If you happen to own an old service from your grandmother. Compare those plates to your modern-day plates. We literally bought modern-day salad plates (ergo a dinner plate), and dessert plates, that serve both for both salad if we do serve it on the side, and desert. This was done on purpose, and we do not feel deprived.

Supersizing burger portions, fries portions and chicken nuggets in the 1980s also helped to distort our image of a healthy portion. So did the huge portions of popcorn at the movie theaters, or the boxes of candy. Don’t get me started with soda. A normal portion is an 8 oz cup. Outside of the kiddie sizes, good luck. Incidentally, a kiddy tray is like the perfect portion for the candy, the popcorn, and the soda. But most people will stay away from them because they are for kids. They are actually meant for adults or should be.

Until the 1980s we mostly did not have this problem. If you want to a restaurant, the portions were normal. Think about the 1950s and the burger joints. Most had a small burger patty, which these days would be served as a kid’s size fry portion and sodas were not all you could have, and drinks were 8 ounces, not an open soda bar. This creep in portion size is one reason why you look at a normal portion and think, that is too small.

This is why our obesity epidemic took hold in the 1990s

This is why we cannot break it. Or rather, we will not until we as a society reject some of this.

Yes, Michelle Obama was on the right track when she started the move it campaign, which included healthier lunches in school cafeterias. Parents complained because they felt attacked. Never mind that they are likely overweight to obese, they saw this intervention as an invasion of their privacy. Never mind that we also have a diabetes epidemic and increasingly children are developing it. And we are not talking of Type 1 which occurs in children, we are taking Type 2, which was rare.

We need to deal with food deserts as well. We have areas of the country where truly, all it is available are fast foods. Finding fresh fruit and vegetables is hard because there are no stores. Yes, upper-income people can go to Whole Foods and get all the organic food they want. But there are people who live in urban cores who cannot find an apple.

The pandemic made this even more transparent. It also became more obvious that people who have little money for food will continue to choose the highly processed items because they are also cheaper than the fresh items. These are policies we have made.

Once the schools reopen, school lunches have to move away from mostly relying on cheap junk food. Yes, I realize the food lobby will again put a lot of pressure on Congress. But the cost to the medical system and society has to be balanced. We need to teach the next generation to have a wider palate and to appreciate healthy food.

If you are going to try to lose weight, which is a good idea, do so in a sustainable manner. Crazy diets don’t work, or do short term. But then you regain all that and then some and never learned what a healthy portion is. Resist the diet industry siren song for prepackaged meals. They are more processed junk food.

Learning to read labels is critical. Learn how to cook. Invest in a good cookbook, and these days you can watch a lot of videos on YouTube on how to process fresh food. Change your dishes for things that are smaller. Ten-inch dinner dishes are great. It truly retrains the mind’s eye as to what is a healthy portion.

Learn to enjoy a variety of foods, and experiment.

If you go to a restaurant, take half home. Order the kiddie size tray at the movie theater, once they reopen. Change your relationship with food.

Understand that the food industry has created a lot of food that is addictive. When they say “you can’t have only one,” they mean it. Those chips were formulated to be addictive.

If you buy a bagel, unless it's a mini bagel, be prepared to cut it in half. The same goes for a lot of other pastries. Even sandwich bread, you need to be careful.

A healthy diet relies on eating a variety of foods, fruits, vegetables, protein, and yes, carbs. We used to be able to do this unconsciously and eat moderate portions. Now we all need to make an effort, We also live at a time when food is literally everywhere.

We need to change for another reason. Many of our young people have diets that are the result of the last thirty years. It’s horrible, and they will not eat things like vegetables. They do not like fruit. And a lot of their diet is literally junk food. We need to return to a time when we ate vegetables, and fruits, and balanced meals.

To do this, we also need to relearn skills that many of us do not know. This includes cooking. During the pandemic, we made the happy discovery that we really do not need restaurants. We have not ordered due to Covid, and we do not miss it. I realize I am an exception. Most Americans do not know how to cook or do it fairly well. Also, when you learn how to cook and appreciate food, it changes the relationship with it.

Baking is not beyond what I can do, but I chose not to. I used to in the past for my husband. And I have a good chocolate chip cookie recipe that is gluten-free. We just chose not to, because we can get good baked goods that are GF at the farmers market, our exception of getting things out during COVID. I eat them on occasion. The rest of our meals are made at home from fresh ingredients.

We all come from different regions of the planet with different food cultures. Due to allergies, I had to mostly give up one of mine. But we have built our food culture at home around my other food culture, Central Mexico food, and southeast Asian food.

However, over the last two to three generations, those rich food traditions that people brought to the United States from all over have been amalgamated into an industrial food system that has proven damaging to our national health.

It is time for us to make a choice. We can continue on the path we are, or we can try to rebuild those food traditions that appreciated quality over quantity. To do this, we must make changes not only individually, but also as a nation. The reality is that if we don’t, we face even more health crises in years to come. Our current model is not working.

We also must retrain ourselves as to what is a healthy portion of food, and to stop eating when we are full. Those snacks, and processed foods….they are fine, I suppose, as what they were in the past. Something you had as a treat, not an everyday thing.

Enjoy an apple for dessert. You know, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. There is a reason for that saying. Apples are good for you, rich in nutrients and fiber.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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