by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 8, 2006
HAVE THEY NO SHAME?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There's no getting around it: fat tastes good. In fact, fat tastes great. So there's this television commercial, Wendy's, I think, and instead of French fries, our national food, a man orders a baked potato with his breaded and fried whatever-nuggets. Everyone in the restaurant falls over in their chairs. A baked potato instead of fries!
He's a hero, this guy. People applaud as he walks away from the counter, and a pretty blonde pantomimes "Call me." But if you look at his plate, the potato is split and jammed like an ice cream sundae with mounds of white fluffy sour cream. And how much do you want to bet there's butter under there, too?
Because as I said, fat tastes great, and when there's an abundance of food around, and you can indulge yourself in whatever instant gratification you're able to dream up, fat is going to be high on the list. Along with sugar, I guess, since America, according to another commercial, runs on Dunkin' Donuts' sugar delivery systems.
Even in what might pass for a healthier commercial -say one for low-fat Hood milk - the message takes a dive when, after drinking the milk, the kid "cleanses his palate" with a giant chocolate-chip cookie.
Today it's common knowledge that one out of three Americans, or 62 million of us, are overweight. We're seeing four-year-olds with Type 2 diabetes, which used to be called "adult onset" diabetes. Obesity is challenging smoking as the nation's greatest health risk.
Peoples' eating habits are so far out of control that stapling someone's stomach so they can't jam more food into it seems like a reasonable option. Ads for "Tuscan chicken sandwiches" dripping with melted cheese on toasted bread the size of a Kia Sedona alternate with ads for diet pills and home exercise machines that I, a college graduate, couldn't put together, much less use.
And if what you enjoy eating disagrees with you, giving you acid indigestion, gas or heartburn, instead of taking that as a warning sign to stop eating it, take a pill and start all over again.
"Americans have a distorted, unhealthy relationship with food," said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition at Oldways, a Boston-based "food issues think tank," in a talk she gave in Brattleboro, Vt. last week at the Strolling of the Heifers Farm Summit. According to her, an overabundance of food and the need to sell it has driven our country 'round the bend.
When it comes to promoting obesity, television is by far the biggest culprit. Whether it's "Meet the Press," "The West Wing," soap operas or Red Sox baseball, if you watch television, it's hard to avoid these commercials and dodge their effects.
According to statistics provided by Google, in a 65-year life span an average adult will have spent nine years of it glued to the tube. Children can develop brand loyalty by the age of two. And do the math. Kids eat 167 calories for every hour of television, and the average kid watches 1,500 hours - containing between 20,000 and 40,000 commercials - during a typical year.
"Ads can distort our idea of what's normal," Harriman said. "The right choice between a Pop Tart and a ripe peach is clear, but if you ask a kid they'll always pick the Pop Tart. Only 5 percent of the food ads are for fruit, veggies, meats and grains, despite that they make up most of our diet. The best food doesn't even have labels."
Even though cooking can be fast, safe, creative and fun, Americans in droves don't do it.
"We average 29 minutes a day for food preparation," said Harriman. "And that includes washing dishes. We're being brainwashed into thinking cooking is too difficult for us."
So more and more, Americans are buying take-out from fast food restaurants and "casual dining" places. That casual dining, by the way, loads you up on bread sticks dripping with cheese, salad dressings laced with fat and sugar, and entrees bubbling and glistening with butters, oils and yes, more melted cheese. Shrimp might be a taste treat, but now Americans mostly view it as an excuse to get melted butter into their mouths. And what, exactly, do you think puts that sizzle in the steak?
How bad is it? Almost every casual television watcher has already heard that fried chicken topped with mashed potatoes, gravy and three kinds of cheese is a viable meal. "It's like you've known me forever," blubbers the grateful guy who orders this dish from KFC.
And according to a new book, "What Americans Eat" by Marion Nestle, "One third of all vegetables consumed in the United States comes from just three sources: French fries, potato chips and iceberg lettuce."
Just watching television is enough to make you feel greasy.
The organic food industry is booming, so you might think that more and more Americans are getting the message about eating healthy - and whole - food.
We're hearing a lot about sustainable agriculture, farmer's markets, slow foods, community gardens, and even a burgeoning organic agriculture industry. If we think ahead to the inevitable rising price of gasoline, we might even envision a future in which melons can no longer be flown from South America in winter to be trucked onto to our breakfast tables. You'd think self-preservation alone would drive Americans to eat better and get into better shape.
But no, the cheese bubbles on.
It's gotten so bad that lately I find myself yelling at the television screen. "How dare you pass that stuff off as food?" I scream at Olive Garden or KFC or Chili's or the chain pizza-parlors that stuff melted cheese into places it doesn't belong, like the crusts. "Have you no shame?"
Sadly, I already know the answer.
AR Correspondent Joyce Marcel writes about culture, politics, business and economics. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.