Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gluttony

I am not one of those virtuous people who says, "food is fuel and nothing more," then never eats more than necessary to maintin daily living. I don't eat to live. I live to eat.

I'm sure I would be much thinner and healthier if I didn't take quite so much pleasure in eating. Unfortunately that's the truth. I love preparing and consuming food. My kitchen is the center of my world. It's not as if I don't have other pleasures in life. I love riding and performing and reading and blogging and the sweet sound of my husband's voice. Eating and cooking, however, for better or for worse, rank up there with all of those other pleasures.

I think at times the "Food is Fuel" food police are a little too stringent. Food is a major part of so many cultures and sharing a meal with loved ones is a universal pleasure. What I'm trying to understand is why such a pleasure has become so toxic in our culture.

Earlier this week I was at the gym and I picked up a magazine off the rack to read on the bike. It had an article about what real women eat all over the world. The women came from such diverse cultures as South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The article listed everything these women ate in a day along with the number of calories each woman consumed.

What shocked me about the article was just how much these women ate in a day. The smallest amount of food consumed was about 1500 calories' worth. The women ate up to 4000 calories per day. None of them looked to be particularly overweight. Compare that with some of these dieting reality shows where participants can drop down to as low as 1200 calories, or the mentality that pervails in this culture of how anyone eating more than 2000 calories per day is a big fat glutton.

What is so unique about Americans and their diets that we collectively put on so much weight and do it so easily?

Is it simply because Americans are just so lazy? Would we all be a lot thinner if we just disconnected and threw away our TVs? What if we stopped living in our cars? We have these cars that are more like living rooms on wheels and I'm not sure that's a good thing. (Stop me now before I go on one of my car rants.) Is it really that simple? Is it really just a matter of physical activity? Let's not forget those of us who hang out on the internet constantly, creating funny Facebook statuses and writing blogs. Is the solution to the obesity problem simply that all of us need to get a hobby that doesn't involve a screen?

Is it something in our food? Most of the women featured in the article ate mostly fresh food. They did eat white rice and couscous, but for the most part, the food was unprocessed. I definitely saw more fruits and vegetables than convenience food. There was an occasional reference to snacks of chips or cookies, but they were in the minority. One of the lowest calorie diets listed contained chips and cookies. Perhaps it's the chemical makeup of the processed foods we eat. There is a big difference between a truly free-range chicken and Chicken McNuggets, or those heavily processed soy-based chunks made to look and taste like chicken. There just may be some truth that the powerful food industry in this country is making us fat.

It all just makes me wonder.

I also think there is a huge problem in our relationship with food. Humans have not evolved much since our days on the savannah. We have a reason to want to consume large amounts in one sitting. We had to prepare for the next inevitable famine. Humans likely gorged themselves on fatty foods in prehistoric times because they never knew when the next calorie-dense meal would be. In many ways we still eat by that instinct.

It just seems that Americans take that mentality to the extreme in a way that other cultures don't. We want to have food everywhere. Events of all kinds are required to serve or sell refreshments, because goddess forbid we should ever feel the slightest bit hungry. When I'm at play rehearsals, there are often doughnuts or Munchkins hanging around. When my niece made her first confession, there was an ice cream party for the kids afterwards.

This weekend I was staying at hotel that provided a free breakfast. Sunday morning I was planning to go out for brunch, but as it was going to be a little later in the day and I had awakened early, I wanted to just grab a snack so I wouldn't be too hungry. (Hmmm...there is that, "I can't ever let myself be hungry" mentality again.) Other hotel guests had practically formed a blockade around the buffet. Every time I tried to get in line or grab something, someone would just shove his or her hand right in front of me and stand there grabbing everything. I just wanted to shout, "Excuse me! Please just let me grab a biscuit so I can get out of here." Adults and children alike were just taking up as much space and food as possible.

My dance teacher has multiple horror stories like this. At Christmas time she holds an open house where classes show off special routines. Attendees are welcome to bring food and it results in a pretty impressive snack and dessert buffet. The teacher told me at last year's open house, parents were standing at the tables shoving and hoarding food into their bags to take with them. It was as if these people never had cookies before.

She had yet another story for me in a similar vein. The studio has ballroom socials on weekends. Once again, as custom seems to require these days, refreshments are served. The teacher usually provides them, store-bought or homemade, but students will often bring stuff as well. One night, a regular student brought a shrimp tray because the teacher liked shrimp so much. They put it on the refreshment table and a few minutes later another couple, who weren't regulars, walked up to the table, and without even taking off their coats, ate almost every shrimp on the plate. Now did they really need to do that?

What is it about food that makes us all so nuts? We turn into animals whenever we're presented with free eats. It's sort of scary. Are we all hoarding fat for the winter?

There are no easy answers I guess. The best any of us can do is stick to fresh food, get plenty of regular activity, and show a little restraint at the free buffets.

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