Why It's So Hard Not to Be Fat and Sick in America
I cannot figure out how we can go on believing the nonsense being fed to us (pun intended) about food. Why are we not protesting in the streets at the injustices being put on us in the name of profit? It’s obvious to me that the bottom line of food companies and corporations has become far more important than the collective health of the people buying food.
People find lots of excuses to indulge: Life is difficult. We feel entitled to a little pleasure as a reward for surviving our daily challenges—like getting a lollipop for going to the dentist. It takes too much discipline to eat healthfully. Just getting through the day is hard enough. Besides, somebody will invent a pill or treatment, or some diet guru will give us the magical formula that will make us thin, fit, and energetic—someday. In the meantime, what’s the point of denying ourselves anything, no matter how bad we know it is for us? Besides, eating fresh, whole foods is a lot of work and it’s too expensive. So we smoke, we drink too much, and we eat stuff that hurts us. We’ve set a low bar for how we look and feel. There’s a disconnect between what we say we want and what we are willing to do to get it. Then we feel guilty and stressed, and the cycle just perpetuates itself.
We are in serious trouble. If you think it’s too expensive to eat healthfully, just take a good look at the increasing cost of healthcare—much of which could be reduced if we took some pretty simple preventive measures now. Why is no one doing anything about it?
Call me naïve, but I just can’t believe that the desire to look and feel our best doesn’t give us the motivation to do what we need to do to be strong, vital, and healthy. It seems to be a no-brainer to me.
What’s it going to take for us to change? It’s a simple question, but the implications are enormous. How much fatter, sicker, and more exhausted must we become before we have had enough? How much longer will we let our health be hijacked?
Just a few decades ago, the food industry made a conscious choice to seduce the American public into eating more processed food, which featured fat, sugar, salt, preservatives, and dozens of other unpronounceable ingredients. And we could not have made it easier for them. We’ve come to love anything fast and convenient. “Heat and eat” or “grab and go” have become the buzz words of the day. It seems the less healthy the food, the more we love it. We left the dinner table for dinner in a bucket.
In the late nineteenth century, food began to be mass produced and standardized because it could be transported long distances as railways expanded into every region in the country. Reliance on local food from the family farm was diminished.
In 1903, trans fats were invented, allowing food to sit unspoiled on shelves for much longer periods of time. It’s been downhill from there.
Processed cereals hit the market promoted as the first “health food” and fast became the epitome of the American breakfast. The 1920s saw the introduction of techniques for freezing food as well as the invention of the first preservatives. And everything changed again. Nationally (and internationally) distributed processed and packaged foods began to dominate the way America thought about food—and the way America ate.
After World War II, the reliance on processed foods took a dramatic upswing when women left the kitchen to work outside the home. At the same time, the war played a major role in creating a more cosmopolitan diet for Americans as servicemen had been exposed to a wide variety of cuisines overseas. On top of that, America was breaking out of its pre-war isolation, and the expanded international trade made a wider variety of foods available, including year-round access to exotic fruits and vegetables, creating a more diverse diet for Americans.
In the 1950s, super highways were built and cars became more accessible; people shifted from urban living to the suburbs and commuting was born. Television brought daily entertainment into homes, and the phenomenon of “snack food”—to be consumed while sitting in front of the TV—took hold.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, there was a dramatic increase in the use of pesticides and other chemicals to keep food waste low and the food fresher as it was shipped longer and longer distances. By the 1960s, agricultural subsidies came into play with the federal government encouraging farmers to grow more specific crops, like corn, to be used as cattle feed and to turn into dextrose, which did nothing short of revolutionizing the fast-food industry.
In the 1970s, dietary pattern shifts accelerated dramatically to create a new food landscape. Regardless of ancestry, all Americans started to eat bagels, egg rolls, pizza, tacos—and Thanksgiving dinner. With this shift, food again became a class marker. The more affluent people of America enjoyed fine wines and gourmet foods while the middle and underserved classes relied on cheaply produced, processed foods.
By the 1980s, Americans drove to malls and loaded up their cars with massive amounts of food for a whole week’s worth of eating. In supermarkets and big box stores across the country, food—or what passes for it—was being heavily merchandised. Even the well-planned layout of these mammoth stores encouraged consumers to buy every manner of packaged food—canned, bottled, frozen, or dried. And new products continued to hit the shelves with dizzying speed, all cleverly and relentlessly marketed to seduce shoppers away from locally grown, fresh food prepared from scratch.
Even today’s food television-obsessed culture has revealed a shift: from learning how to prepare and produce food on television to consumption. We have gone from watching Julia and Jacques slice, simmer, and stir their way to a finished meal to a mass of shows about gluttony, watching chef after chef stuff their face in all sorts of places from diners and cafes to the base of the Eiffel Tower.
It appears that cooking has become a spectator sport. In fact, Americans today spend less than twenty-seven minutes preparing food for their day. That’s less than half the time it takes to watch “Top Chef.”
This kind of programming only makes it that much harder not to be overweight. With cooking transformed to a spectacle that we view from the sidelines, it has become another soporific that keeps us sedentary on the sofa yet leaves us yearning, wanting, and craving something we are prepared to work for, which is exactly what advertisers want.
Break the cycle. Swing the pendulum back to sanity. Cook dinner.
Christina Pirello, MFN, CCN, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 26 and used nutrition to help heal her cancer. Pirello teaches whole foods cooking classes and conducts lifestyle seminars across the US. She has written six cookbooks including Cooking the Whole Foods Way.
The Best Chocolate-Chunk Cookies
Makes 28–30 cookies
No kidding, the best—ever. Everyone who tastes these says they are the best.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) vegan buttery “baking sticks,” such as Earth Balance, softened
½ cup brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup coconut sugar
1¼ cups whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup semolina flour
Pinch ground cinnamon
Pinch sea salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 (3.5-ounce) bar dark chocolate (70 percent or more), coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350°F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a hand mixer or a whisk, blend the buttery stick with syrup, vanilla, and coconut sugar until creamy. Mix in flours, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda to form a stiff cookie dough. Fold in nuts and chocolate until incorporated through the batter. Wet a teaspoon and your fingers, and spoon cookie dough onto the lined sheets, allowing room for the cookies to spread, (about a dozen cookies per standard sheet). Bake for 18 minutes. Remove from oven and allow cookies to stand for 2 minutes on the sheet tray. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Wise Guy Chili
Makes 3–4 servings
My Uncle Ralph, a true wise guy, used to make the best chili. And served with my Aunt Laura’s home- baked bread, it was the hit of the family. My vegan version is just as spicy as Uncle Ralph’s but won’t shorten your lifespan, since it has no saturated fat to clog your arteries.
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 red onion, diced
3–4 teaspoons chili powder (or to your taste)
Scant pinch smoked paprika
1 stalk celery, diced
1 small can chopped green chilies
1 (32-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 squares dark chocolate (non-dairy), coarsely chopped
½ cup quinoa, rinsed well
1 cup dried pinto or borlotti beans*, rinsed well
1 bay leaf
Spring or filtered water
Cracked black pepper
2–3 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Place a small amount of oil along with garlic and onion in a soup pot over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, season with a pinch of salt, chili powder to taste (it gets hotter as it cooks), and paprika. Sauté for 2–3 minutes. Stir in celery and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Add chilies, tomatoes, tomato paste, and chocolate; stir well. Add quinoa, beans, bay leaf, and 3 cups of spring or filtered water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 hour or until the beans are soft. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for 3–4 minutes more. Remove bay leaf and serve garnished with fresh parsley.
Raw Beet and Pear Salad
Makes 3–4 servings
I love this salad because it’s packed with flavor and nutrients like iron and is oh so-easy. And because it’s sweet, even the pickiest eater will go for it. This is a great salad to get the kids in on, too.
2 beets, peeled
3 unpeeled pears
Small handful mint leaves, shredded
3 cups baby spinach
½ cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon brown rice syrup
Cracked black pepper
Prepare the beets by cutting them in half lengthwise and slicing them into very thin half moon pieces. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Prepare the pears by cutting them in half, removing the cores and then slicing very thinly lengthwise. Combine with beets. Stir in mint, spinach, and walnuts. Whisk together dressing ingredients with salt and pepper to taste. Toss with salad and serve immediately.