The Great American Food Follies Our Love-hate Affair With What We Eat

January 13, 1991|By A. M. CHAPLIN


Let me give you one example, he says: Within a 15-minute drive of his house there are about 25 fast-food restaurants -- and just about the same number of places peddling diet programs.

"Another example is the cover of a lot of women's magazines," he continues. "You see some very luscious high-calorie dish -- and then the lead story is likely to be some kind of diet article."

Manufacturers are even producing a "lite" dog food now, he says -- as well as ice cream for canines.

Can you believe this?

Dr. Brownell, co-director of the Obesity Research Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, doesn't actually say, "Can you believe this?" but it's there in his voice, in his every sentence.

It's as if he were saying, Can you believe the way our society operates? Can you believe the crazy way people act? Can you believe how often they do things like eating three jelly doughnuts for breakfast while putting Sweet 'N Low in their coffee? Can you believe that the nation that buys Stairmaster also eats almost 20 pounds of candy per capita each year? Can you believe that the only non-fiction category that outsells diet books at Greetings & Readings is cookbooks? Can you believe how nutty we are about nurturing ourselves?

Can you believe how we've gone bananas over the basics of it?

Can you believe how ambivalent and inconsistent and let's face it, just plain confused we can be over that simplest and most ordinary of things, food?

It's all easier to believe if you just remember how tremendously important food is to human beings, says Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. Food may be everyday stuff, but the weirdness we practice

in its name becomes less startling when we remember how loaded down it is with symbolic and cultural and erotic baggage. (Dr. Mintz's book "Sweetness and Power," a trenchant treatise about sugar and its particular set of baggage, has most recently been published in Italian.)

Food isn't just food, then; it's also tied up with sex and sin and social class and all kinds of other goodies that have nothing in common with carbohydrates, proteins and fats, but which we as a society have chosen to see as intimately associated with them.

Bottled water, for example, is nothing more than good old H2O, with bubbles or without -- but consumers see it as an indicator of a healthy lifestyle, of a certain kind of knowledgeableness, of, ultimately, social standing. (Porky proles don't pour Perrier, do they? And if they did, would you?)

Adding to the confusion generated by this load of symbolic baggage is the fact that our ideas about food are changing -- ideas about what foods are healthy, about how our bodies should look, about what constitutes a meal, and even about what tastes good and what doesn't. The new ideas are often in conflict with old ideas -- and they're also sometimes in conflict with each other.

Then the whole self-contradictory brew is glamorized and beamed back at us bigger than life -- actually usually thinner than life -- from TV screens and magazine pages, confirming and intensifying the confusion we have about what we eat and what we don't eat, what we should eat and what we shouldn't.

So is it any wonder the Great American Food Follies look like a long-playing hit?

THE FIRST ACT IS CALLED "WHAT IS This Thing Called Oat Bran," and it's all about the heightened concern in recent years over the healthiness of food.

Periodically Americans get caught up in worries about the healthiness of their food -- at the end of the last century such concerns resulted in the creation of cornflakes and graham crackers -- and this seems to be one of those periods.

Which is fine and dandy, except that this heightened concern for health runs headfirst into several roadblocks on the way to rational execution. The first roadblock is that we don't really know for sure just what is healthy and what isn't. That is, we think we're sure -- until some new report comes out saying the exact opposite.

Thus all cholesterol was bad for you -- until the "good" cholesterol of HDLs was discovered. And protein was what you needed more of -- until complex carbohydrates came into fashion. And an apple a day kept the doctor away -- until Alar

was exposed.

The second roadblock is that most Americans have a pronounced preference for foods that are both fatty and sweet -- although such foods, dense with calorie-laden sugars and artery-clogging fats, are now believed to be bad for you. But we love them anyway, probably because such foods have long been seen as being "the epitome of the good life," says Hopkins' Dr. Mintz; they are symbols of having made it up the social ladder. (They're not called "rich" foods for nothing.) And although these meanings may be waning in our affluent society, they are still far from extinct -- which makes it doubly hard to give up fried dough in favor of cruciferous veggies.

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