Fattening America

January 9, 2011



It’s not Americans fault for being fat.

I’m in my second quarter of classes and I get the funny feeling I spend more time between the kitchen and Yoga studio than anyone else here. Plainly put, I’m not fulfilling any stereotypes of American chicks in grad school.

My friends have been going out to dinner the past couple nights and the mere thought of more than abundant portions of overly salted foods cooked in processed ingredients is less than appetizing. But, it’s my first week back and spending time with friends is important, and its far more convenient to eat out than cook given our schedules. Plus I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can dine mostly anywhere and at the sake of mildly annoying waiters & waitresses and getting puzzled onlookers, I can specifically order a Red-tip, Arugla, Butterleaf, Spinach, Swiss chard or Romaine lettuce salad, with dressing on the side, and request to hold the hormone laced tomatoes. Except at most South Asian restaurants, where “salad” more often than not means you’re getting a bread plate of sliced tomatoes, onions on a bed of …**shudder** Iceberg Lettuce, (the Snookie of all lettuces, if you will. I’m not one to hate, but Iceberg lettuce is to lettuce, what Snookie is to brunettes).

So, that’s what i did on Thursday night when I went out. I ordered a Wasabi, Seared Ahi Tuna salad, which although salty, was quite delicious. Downside: it wasn’t originally a salad! The Tuna was supposed to be covered in creamy potatoes until i said, please hold the mash and give me extra veggies. Bigger downside: I ended up paying as much as the guy next to me who ordered a 3 course dinner. Then on Friday night we went out, and I was exceptionally hungry so, I passed on the salad and ordered a saffron broth based stew of boiled calamari, artichokes, crab leg, mussels, and whitefish (request to hold the pasta). But it happened to be the priciest entree on the menu.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, the fact that eating healthy in America is far more expensive than eating junk (you’ll find the same phenomenon if you visit any grocery store). Which brings us to the second, larger problem of defining the concept of “eating healthy”.

In the 1980’s we were bombarded with advertisements for “low fat” diets that had Americans consuming highly processed packaged foods and condiments that were loaded with added sugar and starch to compensate in taste for the lacking fat. Then in the 1990’s as people realized the increased sugar intake was making them fatter, Atkins and other high protein diets re-emerged with everyone touting Dr. Atkins 1972 proclamation “The High Calorie way to Stay Thin Forever!“. Sure, until most found it’s disgusting to live on a staple diet of meat and eggs minus any grains. Not to mention such diets are almost diametrically opposed to the FDA’s Food pyramid, which is just as ridiculous as the Atkins diet (even the recently modified one).

Are you Kidding me? The FDA wants us to eat more pasta & cereal rather than fresh produce?

And in this past decade as Americans break their backs in a perpetual professional rat race and hit the gym far more than our European counterparts (who mind you work less and are far thinner than us), studies confirm Americans continue to grow fatter.

Suffice to say, most everything recommended thus far has  been counter productive. And amidst this continual trial and error, (which has apparently been a long series of errors), Americans ought to finally catch on.

There’s an article this week in the Irish Times about Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food, where a solution is put quite elegantly: “EAT FOOD. Not too much. Mostly Plants”.

Beautiful. It’s streamlined, sensible and hard to refute. Yes, it turns the entire western diet upside down on its head, but that’s exactly what’s needed as Americans are plagued by heart disease, and obesity. Pollan suggests the western diet” that arose with the industrialization of food in the 20th century is characterized by lots of processed food, meats and refined grains, lots of added sugar and fat, but few vegetables, fruits and whole grains

In fact, go to any grocery store and try to follow the FDA pyramid of loading up on “grains” and even the well informed, yet time pressed American will fall for the sham that are breads, pastas, crackers and cereal laced with additives including fructose (sometimes the infamous high fructose corn syrup), starches (namely enriched corn starch) and even sodium.

We Might as well have Cake for Breakfast

We might as well just have Cake for Breakfast

Prime case in point – Added salt and sugar in cereal clearly manufactured to appeal to children. I mean that is just diabolical.

So, I’ve come to accept the general rule of thumb that buying anything in a package at an American grocery store (including places like Whole Foods and Trade Joes) will most often come processed sugar, and salty “preservatives”. Which leaves us with an option to purchase raw foods that one prepares themselves, bringing me back to my concern with being the odd man, er, woman out here in grad school.

But at the expense of being that girl who does a lot of cooking and Yoga, I’ve found what Pollan says is true. He advises we eat fresh foods that are not processed or enriched with additives. He refers to this as “what our grandmothers would recognize as food”. That sounds about right.

In addition to the problem with highly processed foods, Pollan provides a critical look at the “Reductionist” nutrition ideology in America that has convinced us of Three myths:

  1. Food is only a carrier of nutrients, and it’s the nutrients that matter, not the food
  2. We need experts to tell us what to eat because nutrients are invisible and mysterious to everyone but scientists
  3. Entire purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health

I think he’s right and these myths are key in why Americans keep getting fatter. Let’s go back to the Federal Food and Drug Administration that recommends we get a ridiculous amount of bread, cereal, crackers and pasta in our diet, and advises we make sure at least 3 servings are “whole grain”. Take a box of Cheerios, the seemingly most healthy Cheerios: the ones in the yellow box titled “Toasted whole Grain Oat Cereal” which at the top proclaims “Whole Gain guaranteed!” and toward the bottom declares “Big G Cereals are America’s #1 Source of Whole Grain at breakfast”. It has such a wholesome image of red heart shaped bowl filled with the product and at the bottom reminds us that “3 grams of soluable fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cgerrios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease”.Looks great, until you actually read the nutritional label and ingredients list.

There’s modified corn starch, sugar and worst of all, sodium added to each box. And at 160 grams per serving of sodium and just 1 gram of Sugar, Cherrios are actually among the most healthy of American cereals.

This is despite the fact that The American Heart Association specifically warns against the increased risk of hypertension, subsequently heart disease and stroke that comes with added sodium in ones diet. The association ultimately recommends exactly what Pollen does: eat Fresh.

I mean, why can’t I just get a box of unsalted oats. I like oats. What’s wrong with plain oats? If i want them salty, I’ll add salt myself. Or I could opt for foods with significant amounts of naturally occurring sodium content, like beets, or chickpeas, or spinach. And if I want sugar, I can have any number of fruits. Modify Corn starch? Why, so we can mass produce thicker jelly that preserves Twinkies for years on end? Pollan is right: the western diet is so far removed from natural foods that humans have simply not been able to adapt to it. And the American food industries have rendered it too convenient to be unhealthy, bombarding us with aisle after aisle of grocery store processed excuses for fresh food. I’d really love to see some long term studies that collect data to weigh the costs of producing these foods vs the increasing obesity and heart disease rates, including the cost of prevention and treatment.

So I suppose even if cooking takes up a chunk of my time between studying, socializing and Yoga, eating fresh has helped me maintain a BMI under 20 and capacity to jog a couple miles in the Denver altitude. And the peripheral benefits of wellness are something one cannot put a price on.

I periodically indulge in a ridiculous amount of double stuffed Oreos, Cupcakes, Full Fat Milk and South Asian “mithai”.



  1. Ha Ha Ha
    its the USA the fattest Country in the world, very funny & China is the slimiest Country in the world but with heavy turnover around the world


  2. I really like high protein diet because i workout a lot and do a lot of bodybuilding. Protein is really needed to build muscles. :’,;;

    Take care http://healthmedicinelab.com/centipede-bite/


  3. BMI isn’t a good way to measure because you could be buff and on the BMI scale, said person would be overweight.


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