Fifty years ago Julia Child celebrated butter and cream, teaching us how to craft soufflés and beef Wellington on The French Chef. When her show was originally on the air, the average weight of an adult woman then was 140 pounds. In 1997 the International Federation of Competitive Eating was founded, and a few years later Man v. Food showed us how you can make a living by traveling and allowing yourself to be filmed stuffing as much food into your body in one sitting literally as humanly possible. Now the Food Network takes Fat Chefs and teaches them how to not eat quite so much and how to work off the calories. Today the average weight of an adult woman today is 164 pounds. There is, I think, connection here.
Frank Bruni has been writing some thoughtful essays recently about how we are most likely genetically programmed toward weight gain, pointing out that the way in which we’ve become experts at processing food crops has led to the creation of a tremendous array of irresistibly salty, sweet, tasty, calorie-dense, and cheap things to grab and munch on at will. (Read the piece – he’s got some excellent points – then read the comments, which are also quite insightful.) This is Michael Pollan’s big point in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, showing how we take the million of acres of corn we grow and not just feeding it to the animals we eat, but reformulating it into almost a dozen more components of processed foods:
For modified or unmodified starch, for crystalling fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn.
He discovered that of the 45,000 average items in the average supermarket, some 25% contain corn. This is also a development of the last 50 years, and I’m certain must be another connection to our combined national weight gain.
And of course, the real problem with weight gain isn’t about looking good in a swimming suit. It’s about our national health, which relates directly to health care costs and our combined national productivity. In health news recently we’ve heard about Paula Deen’s diabetes and Frank Bruni’s gout. Then there’s the health news you only hear from conversation – one close friend is on a super-low sodium diet for kidney stones, another has celiac disease. Her husband is lactose-intolerant. My sister, an enthusiastic coffee drinker and GERD sufferer for 20 years, recently gave up her brew and was able to throw her prescription antacids away. Pre diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure aren’t even middle-aged concerns – at Kid One’s high school graduation friend party we had a peanut allergy, a vegan for weight loss reasons and two vegetarians for moral reasons. (I’m sorry to admit that my crab-whacking lesson a few months prior was the impetus for one of them.)
All over the country, scientists are gainfully employed studying the things we drink and eat to find out if our food is, if not slowly killing us, causing us pain and misery. Studies again confirm that eating red meat is really, really bad for us. Results of other studies are showing how high fructose corn syrup, pesticide-grown food, and BPA (Bisphenol A, an organic compound found in plastics) probably alter the way our bodies process insulin, starting a chain reaction that can lead to all sorts of problems from hunger and fatigue to overweight to metabolic syndrome. It’s estimated a full 30% of kids are overweight or obese. I’m overweight, firmly planted at a 26 BMI ever since Kid One was born almost twenty years ago, and I understand what to cook and eat.
In my mind, this boils down to just one big fat problem – what the heck am I going to make for dinner? I used to craft dinners around the whims of picky children and my own convenience: packaged macaroni and cheese, canned refried beans and tortillas, hamburgers and tater tots. But we all need more vegetables, and whole grains, and less red meat, and I still want us all to sit down together for a meal we can all agree is yummy, and I need to figure out how to keep with the boys’ astonishingly voracious appetites – yesterday Kid Two had a 16-oz smoothie, two bagels with cream cheese, an apple, and a pear for an after school snack.
Wouldn’t it be nice if dinner was just dinner? Healthy by default, not by design?
With that in mind, and inspired by Julia Child, I’m officially exercise my power as Family Meal Planner and turning burger night inside-out. Out with the packaged (albeit organic) tater tots and the processing and packaging those entail, and in with a big hot bowl of potato-leek soup as an entree. It’s as fast and easy and comforting as you can get – just chop leeks and potatoes (skin on for the fiber!) and simmer in water or vegetable broth until cooked. Add a bit of salt and pepper, butter, and whatever spices float your boat; parsley and Tapatio sauce are nice. Then it’s easy to dose with milk – cow, almond, coconut, or soy, your choice – to get those all-important extra calories into the growing children.
Then out with 4 or 6-oz burgers as an entree and in with 1 or 2-oz sliders on the side. A pound of grass-fed buffalo or beef is the same price as 2 pounds lean grain-fed meat and is healthier for the environment as well as the kids. We are a small family and this is a small step, but it’s certainly in the right direction.
What is your favorite healthy by default dinner? Are you trying to integrate any new foods and/or menus as a response to health concerns? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.