When you go out into the “War on Fat (Especially if You’re Poor),” what becomes glaringly obvious is that almost none of the reporting takes seriously modifying the environment of food ubiquity. The focus is 99.99999% on modifying what Teh Fatz eat, and the fundamental assumptions are:
- Fat people eat differently than non-fat people
- Fat people eat bad, unnatural, processed, unclean, low-nutrient, (insert favorite negative epithet here) food
- Fat people are careless and mindless about what they eat
- Fat people are sedentary and lazy
- Fat people are going to suffer excess morbidity and mortality because they are fat, and only weight loss will provide better health outcomes
In light of these assumptions, the prescriptions for combating the Fat Tide are pretty limited:
- Restrict calories; if necessary, use surgery to prevent absorption of calories
- Change diet radically from (the presumed) highly processed, low-nutrient, high-calorie foods to little processed, high-nutrient, low-calorie foods
- Engage in aggressive exercise regimens to burn excess calories
What if this is simply, plainly, ineluctably the wrong approach?
What if the deep problem is not something disordered with the fat individual as such, but with a disordered environment of food ubiquity? The more successful approach would then be seeking ways to moderate the effect of the environment in such a way that the individual gains power and authority over herself and her immediate environment. It would take on the how of eating first and foremost, and only later study the what.
Amidst the howling and ranting and pearl clutching over the scourge of processed food and toxic sugar and the evil corporations out to make money off our food purchases by selling us stuff we like to eat, we’ve lost sight of why people eat this food in the first place.
It’s what they’ve always eaten.
It may be packaged and sold in a way that makes it easier and faster to eat a given food (pizzas, boxed macaroni & cheese, purchased hot dogs, frozen lasagne, kettle chips, popcorn, cookies, iced coffee, and so forth) but, with a few key exceptions almost all found in the candy aisle, these are variations on foods that have been prepared at home, at local shops, and at local eateries for a very long time. Indeed, a lot of the convenience foods have been with us for five and six generations by this point in time, the original creations of the industrial revolution. Saltine crackers, anyone?
Our diets are, in a very weird way, richer, more varied, more adventurous, indeed, more healthy, than at any time in human history because we can sample a larger world of food with greater confidence in its safety and its availability. I can walk into a local grocery and get food from around the world, from Milwaukee to Madrid to Mumbai to Macau. In my menu this week, I’m eating salmon from Alaska grilled on a cedar plank as West coast Native Americans have done for centuries, served with a potato salad with a lemon and black olive Italian dressing and a Greek influenced green bean and tomato salad. I’m having a Thai green curry dish. I’m eating a Russian mushroom dish. An Italian roasted chicken dish. A Japanese soba noodle dish. Portuguese egg tortas. It’s the freaking UN on my dinner table. My take out options are even more exotic.
Americans have been eating hamburgers, pizza, pasta, ribs, fried chicken, decadent desserts, mounds of potatoes, loaves of bread slathered with butter, honey, jam, cheese, nut butters, mayo, mustard, you-name-it-someone’s-slapped-it-on-there, cup after cup after cup of coffee with cream and sugar, chocolate, sodas, breakfast cereals, and you get the picture, for a long time, much longer than the current obesity panic can account for. This is why we are on a frantic search for the evil, artificial, unnatural additives that simply must be in there, corrupting and destroying our food. The puritanical streak in our nation’s soul will not rest until it can find the sin that is corrupting the body politic and guide us into mortification of our fallen bodies.
Mortification of the flesh. That means killing it. Making it “mort” or dead. I am so not down with that view of our physical forms.
Back to the topic at hand. Unless you really want to argue that our entire food supply is irredeemably toxic (and, yes, there are plenty of benighted souls who frantically want to believe this, and some truly twisted ones who want other people to believe this so they can make a buck off people’s paranoia – cough*organics*cough), then we need to look at the scientific fact of a dramatic societal increase in body mass as having more to do with the how of our consumption than with the what.
And that how is food ubiquity.
Everything we have eaten for decades and generations, at church suppers, evening family meals, nights out, in all of the cuisines that our ancestors brought here (no matter when or how they arrived) and then mashed-up with all the other food ways, this is what we’ve continued to eat. It’s the how of consumption that has changed dramatically around us. Our digital lifestyles, the decline of manual labor as a portion of our days, the increased access to food that can be consumed quickly out of hand, this is the reality of food ubiquity.
We have more food within easy reach at a lower price than ever before, and we have to perform less and less daily activity to secure that food. I am, of course, speaking at a societal level. There are many individuals – far too many of them children – who live under conditions of food scarcity and insecurity. But for most people in this country, we can have what we want whenever we want it.
We are also bombarded by media that entices us to try all sorts of variations on our old favorites as often as we can. If I like fried chicken, why wouldn’t I like fried chicken nuggets? If I like hamburgers, look at all the different kinds I can try, from the most basic McD’s to some outrageous high-priced gourmet concoction at a swanky joint in Chicago! Macaroni & cheese comes in a box, in the freezer aisle, at the deli counter, from KFC, at the bistro, and in unending and ever-more-decadent recipes found in books and magazines, on TV and online. How many types of sushi are there? Probably not as many as there are different kinds of pizza and pizza-adjacent dishes. And so forth.
The food puritans want Teh Fatz to stop eating the foods we have come to love over the years and live on the unpalatable crap they enjoy inflicting upon the themselves in the name of “health.” Sorry, but green smoothies are revolting and vile, as well as expensive. The diet & fitness industry licks its chops and waits for the next round of victims for the treadmill of Sisyphus, banking on our failure to line their pockets. The food industry shrugs and says “Whatever, as long as we can make a buck, we don’t care what asinine food fad is hot today.” The food paranoiacs see an opportunity to move forward their agendas of anti-science and fear. They are all focused on the what of our eating (or, in the case of fitness, the what of our activity), and not on the how, which would mean how we can negotiate the new food environment, eat what makes us happy, but also take care of our mortal forms.
Instead of bombarding someone with a mountain of medicalized directions for what to change about their diets, how about just helping then eat in a more structured and self-conscious way that will let them get some control over the ocean of food and eating prompts currently swamping our environment? Like:
- Have regular meal and snack times
- Plan a weekly menu so you know what great, lip-smacking stuff you’ll be having
- Be very deliberate in choosing foods that you find personally satisfying – this doesn’t mean cooking, by the way. You can choose ready to eat food, take-out, frozen, home cooked, and any combination thereof
- Look forward to your meals and give them the appreciation they deserve
- Serve yourself with generosity both for the food and for yourself.
- Stop when you are satisfied (and this may men eating a little, eating a lot, or somewhere in between) and content with your meal
- Don’t let the pointless yammering about “health” bully you into eating food you don’t like, or make you feel ashamed of eating food that gives you pleasure. Eat the good stuff, which will be different for each person.
Over and over, I read that people lose weight and then they “fall off the wagon” and “gain it all back” because they don’t have the will power to “stick with the healthy diet.” Bullshit. They were pushed into eating in a way that was unsatisfying for an external goal and which did not help them define their own relationship to enjoyable food in the face of a food environment that is constantly preaching more, more, more at us. More food choices. More extreme diets. More unrealistic exercise regimens. More hours in the car or on the bus commuting. More ways to sit in front of the TV and munch away. More alienation from our bodies and our ability to manage our own eating. This is what the focus on weight to the exclusion of all else is doing, and why the only supportable change (supportable because ordinary people can do it and supportable because it respects human autonomy and freedom) is one that helps us learn how to get back to ordinary eating, ditching the language of pathology, medicine and morality along the way.
So, lets learn how to eat in the brave new world of food ubiquity.