Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fat Chance

Waistlines are expanding in all wealthy countries, but this is one global race where the USA still is out in front. There is much handwringing (bellyaching?) about this among columnists and politicians. All ask “Why?” as though the answer were a mystery. There is no mystery. We eat too much.

There are a couple of myths that need correction as we seek out someone to blame. One is that restaurants generally impose larger portions on us than they did 50 years ago, and the other is that the foods we eat at home are less healthy now than they were then. Upper scale restaurants, it is true, do serve larger portions now, but Americans eat only a few percent of their annual calorie intake in these places; these cannot be blamed for our weight gain. As for less expensive everyday places, portions are NOT larger. I remember what diners (the preferred fast food venues of the day) were like 50 years ago. The gravy-soaked open-face hot roast beef sandwich (or whatever main dish you ordered) came with buttered toast, heaping sides of hash browns, grits, succotash, and fried…well… everything, followed by a hunk of baked-in-house apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top. After we left the diner we’d likely go to a movie where we ate a bucket of buttered popcorn. After that, we would stop by the local ice cream fountain. These fountains were everywhere – especially in drug stores. The soda jerk poured you a milk shake from a tall metal jar and left the jar with you for a second and third pour. Burger joints, hot dog stands, and pizza parlors abounded then, as now, though fewer belonged to national chains. Most (though not all) of the burgers were smaller than modern day Whoppers or Quarter Pounders, but (trust me on this one) for that very reason we ordered two – and extra fries. We ate fewer calories out only because we didn’t go out as often. We didn’t have the money.

As for food at home, our diet was not by modern notions healthy. Yes, we had our veggies, but we drowned in dairy products. My family had four quarts delivered daily by the milkman, which was pretty typical. I drank at least one of them by myself. Eggs were not just for breakfast but also topped meatloaf at dinner. Gravy was likely to be “red eye” (fat drippings from the frying pan).

A USDA study supports my recollections (see The percentage of fat in Americans’ diet actually has declined since 1970. It was 40% then and 33% today. Dairy consumption has declined so much that, despite the fat dangers, the USDA suggests Americans should drink more milk for the calcium. Annual red meat consumption has dropped 16 pounds per person since the peak (129.5 pounds) in 1970. The number of eggs per person has dropped from 285 to 250 in the same time period (down from a whopping 374 in the 1950s).

So, why aren’t we skinnier? Because our total calorie intake per person keeps rising – by nearly 25% since 1970 according to the same USDA report. So, even though the percentage of fat in our diet is lower, in absolute terms we eat more fat than ever. We cut back on those “unhealthy” red meats by 16 pounds since 1970, but we increased our consumption of poultry by 31 pounds (by 46 pounds since the 1950s); in addition, we increased consumption of fish and shellfish by 3 pounds. We replaced all that milk with soft drinks, which are not exactly an improvement. Fruit and vegetable consumption is up more than 23% since the 1970s, which sounds like a good thing, but it adds to the total calorie intake. The result: we now are eating an average 2700 calories per day, which is 530 calories more than in 1970.

Perhaps our biggest problem is our very habit of blaming everyone but ourselves. We are food addicts – and we do not have the option of going (so to speak) cold turkey with food as we do with other abused substances. Addicts of any kind get better only when they take responsibility for their own excesses.

“Stop eating so much” is far easier said than done, as I know painfully well. We all would like to be trim while still eating whatever we like. In practice, though, life involves trade-offs. There are a few fortunate souls whose appetites balance their metabolisms precisely; for most of us, though, our choice is to be trim and hungry or overweight and full. Perhaps we should just accept that some people pick the latter option and not moralize to them about it so much. Will they live shorter unhealthier lives? Yes. They know that. Riding motorcycles shortens expectancy, too. Both are free choices. With ever increasing frequency, we hear demands that someone else (restaurants, the FDA, supermarkets, or whoever) save us from ourselves; abdication of self-responsibility in matters of self-indulgence is always a dubious path to success.

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