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We are (largely) what we eat

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Esther Cepeda
July 3, 2011
— Quick quiz: What’s the difference between deep-fried Kool-Aid and potato chips?

If you haven’t yet made it out to the San Diego County Fair for a mouth-watering ball of “Chicken” Charlie Boghosian’s famous Kool-Aid-laced deep-fried batter, you might not be so sure.


Here’s a hint: Despite the simple ingredients—cherry-flavored Kool-Aid drink mix, water, flour and lots of sugar—Boghosian’s actual recipe is a closely guarded secret. Other deep-fried delights—peanut butter, beer, candy bars and even spaghetti and meatballs—await at county fairs and outdoor festivals across the nation, too. These foods, nutritional extravagances beautifully paired with ice-cold lemonade, were made to be enjoyed after hours of walking around in the hot sun. They weren’t designed to feed the body—but to feed our souls.


Potato chips, on the other hand, are not a prized item found only on annual food scavenger hunts. They’re ubiquitous and low-cost, and so are scarfed down at all hours of the night and day with little effort in the fetching.


We all know what the result is. But if you need official confirmation, researchers from Harvard University recently published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that among 121,000 U.S. men and women, the highest instances of four-year weight gain were most closely associated with eating potato chips. Other forms of potatoes, plus sugar-sweetened drinks and processed and unprocessed red meat, in that order, rounded out the list of foods that increased weight gain regardless of a general rise in food intake or lack of exercise.


However, a weakness for potato chips isn’t making America fat: A profound lack of interest in the obesity epidemic and general ignorance about nutrition are the true culprits.


Aside from a handful of activists, along with the current residents of the White House, not many people seem to really care about the single most important health issue of our time.


Obesity is eating America, and the world, alive. A study published in the medical journal The Lancet confirms that obesity is a global health threat of epidemic scale. Nearly 10 percent of the world’s adults have diabetes, a number that has doubled worldwide in the last 30 years and is quickly rising due to skyrocketing obesity and increased inactivity.


In the U.S., obesity—which drives cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes—is weighing down 36 percent of women and 33 percent of men. Almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers carry excess weight for their length, and slightly more than 20 percent of children between ages 2 and 5 are already overweight or obese.


Far more than just issues of vanity, individual liberties or health, it’s a national security threat.


This is not exactly news. A highly publicized 2010 military task force report, “Too fat to fight,” called out obesity as the main reason that 27 percent of young adults are medically ineligible to join the military. I was reminded of it a few days ago during a panel in support of the DREAM Act when Margaret Stock, a former professor at West Point, told me that despite any Afghanistan drawdown in troops, “as the economy recovers, the armed forces will face a very difficult recruiting climate (in which more) U.S.-born and naturalized citizens will not qualify for service due to physical impairments.”


Yet despite screeching headlines, social and political aspects of obesity too often distract from the dialogue about what Americans should—and shouldn’t—be eating to maintain a healthy weight.


Preventing and reducing obesity require paying attention daily to food intake and levels of physical activity. Unfortunately, this is not a simple task and study after study has shown that very few people get counseling on how to do it right, and too few health professionals deliver the correct advice. As a result, less than 9 percent of Americans bother keeping track of what they eat every day.


I know: Who wants to think about our national obesity crisis while we’re trying to enjoy ourselves at the county fair? But it’s not what we eat at the trip to the fair, it’s what we eat every day that matters. If we don’t manage our food choices, we are going to have to manage our obesity-related diseases every day—for the rest of our lives.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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