Saturday, May 7, 2011

How Did We Survive Before The Boston Market?

Emily Rosenbaum over at the Ms. Magazine blog had something interesting to say about food this week. In this week's post, she writes about how the convenience food industry has managed to convince the American public that cooking from scratch is a monumental task. She indicates that it took them a whole generation to do this, but that they have done it nonetheless. How did they manage that? She discusses the creation of an artificial market for pre-packaged meals that is based on the myth that you cannot get dinner together in 30 minutes or less and  that "processed food freed women from the kitchen, allowing them to join the workforce." Ms. Rosenbaum dissects this in more detail in her blog, and I encourage you to follow the link above and read for yourself.

The end result of people eating less real, home made food is exactly what we have been seeing over the last decade - increases in obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and the acceptance of snacking as a way of life. Convenience foods lack the basic nutrition of the raw ingredients that are used to actually make a meal yourself. Because these foods are not nutritionally sound, they do not satisfy, and soon we must eat again. And again. And again.

The other big problem with convenience foods is how they are flavored. Because any raw ingredients used in these pre-packaged meals has been cooked beyond recognition, additional flavoring has to be added. Over the last few decades, this flavoring has evolved from simply trying to make the food taste the way it should to the creation "hyper flavors". In his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, former Commissioner of the FDA Dr. David Kessler discusses how these hyper flavors change and condition our palates. Various flavors are layered to touch specific senses in a particular way to induce a craving for those flavors even if they do not actually taste like food. My mother discusses this layering concept in her commentary on Dr. Kessler's book here.

As we become convinced that we do not have time or energy to cook for ourselves and increase our reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods and take-out, are we raising a generation that is not only over-weight and under-nourished, but also doesn't know what actual food tastes like? In addition to the increased risk of disease and lower life expectancy, what does our long-term survival look like if we have forgotten how to fend for ourselves?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Food From the Dieter's Perspective

Something interesting happened to me this week. I was at work when I looked at my reflection in the mirror in the Ladies room and didn't hate what I saw. This might sound less than eventful, but think about this for a moment - when was the last time this happened to you?

Like many of my peers, I've been on some variety of diet or weight-loss plan for most of my life. My weight has vacillated from around 100 in high school (all-time low was 93 lbs in 1986) to 185 (2002, shortly after getting an office job, moving to the suburbs, getting married, and not changing my eating habits even though my physical activity came to a screeching halt). I've done Atkins, The Zone, Weight Watchers (which actually worked and got me back down from that high point). I've given up some foods for good - soda, Rice-A-Roni, frozen dinners and other assorted things I know I shouldn't eat. I've also maintained a gym membership since 2002, working out at least three times a week most of the time. Plus subscriptions to various magazines like "Shape" and "Fitness", which basically repeat the same articles every month about how giving up soda and taking the stairs will make me lose 10 lbs. But what if I'm already doing that?

All this attention on weight and what we eat and what we should eat (and what we shouldn't eat) takes a lot of time and energy. Add to it the mental static of being convinced that your own reflection is horrifying every time you are even close to anything shiny and it's a wonder some of us accomplish anything. It certainly explains why I felt like shit after those Suzy-Q's the other day. Sure, part of it was the sugar and chemicals and other assorted bullshit that no one should eat - ever. But part of it was also a good dose of self-loathing for indulging in a 200-calorie snack. (I know this because I googled "Suzy-Q" to get the calorie count before I hit the vending machine. I do this every time I think about something in the vending machine. Sometimes several times in a single day.) That lasted for a good day or so.

I know more about the caloric content of junk food than I do about world geography. Meanwhile, my male counterpart can hand-draw a map of the Middle East and correctly label all - yes all - of the Stans (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, etc.) Why? Because he doesn't feel like crap after every meal, snack, desert, secret binge in the middle of the night. He sees food as something nourishing, to be shared and savored. I see food as a necessity and something to have as little of as possible. Food relaxes him and makes him feel satisfied. It stresses me out and most meals leave me feeling lousy for hours (sometimes even days) afterward.

Of course, this is not how it should be. This denial of a basic need that so many of us devote so much of our time and energy to distracts us from real happiness. It can lead to the opposite of dieting - overeating. I've watched this other end of the spectrum among my family and friends. Either situation results in a maladjusted view of food and self.

There is a wealth of reading material available about this now, from "Eat, Pray, Love" in which a woman reclaims her sense of self by first reclaiming food, to "Women, Food and God", a seriously deep dive into recovering from eating disorders like bulimia and overeating and building a normal relationship with food. Plus a lot in between. I've been reading some of these and, while interesting and easy to relate to, they are all somehow unsatisfying. They contain truth, but no real answers, no resolution for us chronic dieters.

So how do we get so fucked up about this in the first place? How old were you when you first started dieting? What was your favorite dieting short cut? (Mine was always water pills) Can you maintain a normal weight yet? I'm still gaining and losing the same 20 lbs on a regular two-year cycle.

I'll admit, I'm at the high peak of that weight-loss cycle and just gearing up to drop those two sizes. When, out of the blue, in the middle of a busy, hectic day when I was preoccupied thinking about really what it is I am supposed to be doing, I caught a glimpse of my reflection and thought it was OK. I stopped and took an actual look at myself. And it was still OK. Even that belly. I went to my toning class at the Y and thoroughly enjoyed my dinner and slept soundly that night without a trace of anxiety. If I figure out how to make this last, I'll let you all know.