Meals, Weight, Choices and the American Diet

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Beef stew with root vegetables and fingerling Potatoes

First, I did not grow up in the United States. This makes my experience with food when growing up differently than most Americans. I grew up in Mexico, before the North American Free Trade Agreement, and before McDonald’s and other processed foods penetrated the country. These days, if you go to Mexico, you will find every fast food outlet you can think of, and frozen processed foods are not that uncommon. However, when I was growing up that was not the rule. And yes, we ate very differently.

What do I mean by this? Over the last generation Mexico has seen the exponential growth of fast food, (and I do not mean tacos), and the penetration of highly processed Americanized foods. This led to the growth of obesity, to the point that the United States and Mexico take turns in which nation is first in obesity rates.

This is happening in Italy as well, as the country is now under an American diet invasion. The same is happening in India, where the middle class is eating a lot of processed foods. And the same has been observed in other places. Our convenience, which truly started in the 1950s, led to a health crisis. Why? Processed foods are not good for you.

So what can we learn from other places? How can we modify our personal food choices to a more traditional, but healthy diet? Well, the first thing we need to admit is that we have a problem. Americans are addicted to both speed and cheap carbohydrates. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is not healthy. It is not well balanced, and it is not really good for you. Just look at current obesity rates. However, it is convenient. One reason for this, if you need to work two or three jobs, cooking becomes a chore. The local drive though is more than just appealing. And no, it wasn’t this way before the rise of the burger joints in the 1950s or the super-sizing of food portions in the 1980s and 90s.

Marketing has made this fast and easy even for people who have time to cook. We have also lost our collective ability to cook. Processing a tomato is a chore for many Americans. So it’s making anything more complex than a frozen meal. We also tend to have a very negative relationship with fruits and veggies. While some school districts are doing a good job of introducing our children to these things, many still do not. Also, the Donald Trump administration just reversed the Michelle Obama fresh food initiative for schools. It’s no secret the president’s diet is bad. Add to that lobbyists, and what we had gained will be lost. This will be to the detriment of public health.

We have also created a dieting industry, valued in the billions. It promises quick results but includes pre-made industrial food. It matters not what company if you eat our products, we guarantee you will become fit and slim. You don’t need to think about it. Get our shakes, our pizza, and our cake. We promise results. Ever wonder why salads and veggies are never shown in the commercials? And if you eat as told, you will be in a calorie deficit, and you will lose weight. Their other promise, you will learn to eat, I do not think so. To do that, you need to make your own, and you need to cook. You need to own all that you eat.

There is a newcomer to the industry, joining the calorie counting apps. This is NOOM, and this one uses psychology. Why? We have lost our ability to make healthy choices. Full disclosure, I use LoseIt, which is one of a panoply of calorie counting apps. Why I use it is unique when you make sure you eat enough. But I digress. NOOM uses what we know of human psychology to move from the just diet mindset for lifetime changes in habits, and if you have issues with this, it might be a worthy thing to look into. I have not explored it, so I am quite agnostic about it.

So what are some of the things you should do if you seek to become healthier? First off, get off the I do not like veggies bandwagon. I know it starts early and certainly adds capitalize on it as well. We have plenty of research that shows that we need them. The phytonutrients are critical for your health. Try to have three to five servings of veggies a day, and whatever you do, during the week make sure you have the rainbow in colors: White, yellow-green, purple, they are good for you.

Salads are good for you, and so are steamed veggies. We have them in soups often, and I tend to put more veggies than the recipe calls for. Why? They are filling, and they are nutrient-rich. I avoid cream sauces, however. Or for that matter, I avoid shredded cheese on vegetables. Cotija and Parmesan pack a punch in flavor for fewer calories.

I also make sure I have two fruits a day. The traditional recommendation is five veggies and fruits a day, so yes, I am having more than the minimum recommendation. They also have fiber, which is good for you.

While I do eat animal protein, I tend to also go for some vegan choices during the week. It’s good for the planet, and it is good for you. I like Miso soup and got the paste at the supermarket. So miso soup with seaweed and tofu is a good lunch. At times I add a small salad.

Now, there is another thing. Variety is the spice of life, so these days I tend to have a small portion of this, and another of that. A starch, four to five ounces of protein and veggies. That is the rule for almost all meals. At times I make an exception for breakfast. However, I make sure I eat a source of protein with every meal and snack. Why? It keeps me fuller for the day.

In other words, I have gone back to habits acquired as a child. When I was growing up the main meal was lunch. That meal had some starch choice. It could be tortillas, bread, fideos, beans. It had protein, some chicken, meat, even cheese, and at least two choices of vegetables. At times it was simply rice and beans for that protein and tortillas. We had some fresh salad and a cooked vegetable. What was the desert? Fruit of course. Breakfast usually was an egg, with some fruit, and beans or tortillas. Dinner was usually some cheese, yogurt, fruit. At times a quesadilla, with corn tortillas, squash flower, and asadero cheese, with salsa.

This is now my diet, however, we reverse lunch for dinner. I have gone back to what I learned to eat as a child. Cake and other snack foods, that are still junk food, were extremely rare. Potato chips, cake, and soda were limited to special occasions. So was ice cream. They were real treats, not something we ate often. And these days I rarely have any of that.

And as I study how other cultures eat, I realize that most who have thinner populations have a version of this. Japanese culture eats mindfully, and a little of this, a few of that, breakfast has a protein, fish usually, or tofu. Miso, a small serving of vegetables. People should eat until satisfied, not to the point of being uncomfortable.

The Mediterranean diet does rely on veggies, fruits grains, and some protein. Both have a better quality of life and a longer life span. The traditional Mexican diet is squash, beans, corn, and peppers. This goes all the way back to ten thousand years ago, with the rise of agriculture. It has some animal protein. Before the conquest, it meant fish, turkey, yes dog, frogs, and snails. Quelites, a variety of young leafy veggies, were at the heart as well. And until the SAD penetrated the country, obesity and diabetes were not as pervasive as they are now.

Healthy diets around the world include a lot of variety. And in fact, the American diet before the 1950s was far more varied and had more vegetables and fruits. They were just eaten in season. Partly people were able to cook at home. There are sociological and historical reasons why this was the case. However, a return to a past with less processed foods is needed.

So is a return to smaller portions. This means also going back to smaller dishes. Sitting around the table at dinner time, if you can afford it, you should do it. Add a lot of fresh veggies to your diet. And cut down on the processed stuff. Try to shop on the periphery of the supermarket. And whatever you do, add some foods with probiotics every day. Yogurts are good for you. However, be careful. I tend to eat natural yogurt with no sugar added. Why? A lot of the yogurts on sale have a lot of added sugar.

The payout, you will feel a lot more energy. You will likely lose weight, and your body will be healthier. And if you want a bagel, cut it in half. Modern-day pastries are double what they should be as a general rule.

And if you think you are eating for emotional reasons, keep a diary. Find out why you are eating and change your relationship with food. If you need help, go for it. Food is here to fuel you, not to be in control. Yes, there are times we eat to celebrate. But those should never be every day or weekly affairs.

But…traditional food is fried! Well, moles are very traditional, however, they are not a daily thing in the Mexican diet either. And the American diet used to be closer to the land, and healthier too.

Written by

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

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