By Patty Hammond
Not many of us can claim our waistline is the same size it was when we were in high school. Even sadder, most teens today weigh more than their parents did and there's an alarming increase in the number of overweight children developing type 2 diabetes in this country. So what's causing these changes in our bodies?
Basically, most Americans are simply eating too much and too often. We also don't move our bodies anywhere near as much as earlier generations moved theirs. Put those factors together and look around you. Astonishingly high numbers of us are fat. Being fat is bad enough, but many pay an additional price because extra pounds often contribute to the development of deadly chronic diseases.
So how did we get in such a sorry state? There are a lot of factors at play here. Some of it has to do with our prosperity. We can afford to eat more. Some has to do with our busy lifestyles. We rely more on calorie-dense, easy-to-prepare processed foods, snack foods and fast foods. We are also more likely to eat mindlessly, meaning we plop down in front of the television with a big old bag of chips, we stand at the sink and nibble while we prepare meals, we keep a stash of convenience food in our office and graze at our desks, or we eat junk food on the run in our cars. Consequently, we're often unaware of exactly how much food we're eating. Until we suddenly look down and realize we've eaten everything.
Researchers have been studying our national obesity epidemic and making recommendations, most of which sound pretty simple. Cornell University researcher, Brian Wansink, has conducted some very interesting studies on food psychology and consumer behavior, providing many fascinating insights and creating a deeper scientific understanding of our relationship with what we eat.
Dr. Wansink's research has shown that our immediate environment often influences what we choose to eat. Think a minute about the way food is presented, stored, and served, including how it's labeled. All of these things can impact our eating habits. For instance, one of his studies showed that people, including bartenders, pour 28% more into a short wide glass than they do into a tall glass. Another study showed that people eat more candy from a dish placed on their desk than they eat from that same dish when they have to walk across the room to get the candy. Even more interesting, he found that people eat more of that candy if it's clearly visible in its container. His work has also shown that we eat more food if we are selecting it from a buffet.
Let's stop and think about those buffets. When we see a wide array of food we often want to sample as many different things as we can. However, all those little tastes can add up quickly. That's why some people found short-term success with some of those crazy diets that focused on eating only one food or a very limited selection of foods. I recall a cabbage soup diet and one involving eating little other than bananas. Both foods are good for you, when eaten in the context of a balanced diet, but we quickly get sick of eating only one food or choosing from a very limited variety of foods. So, while the diet may help you lose weight at first simply because you can't stand the thought of another bowl of soup or one more banana, in the long run these diets don't work. As Dr. Wansink says, "The best diet is the one you don't know you're on." He means we need to change our eating life style permanently.
So what's currently included in a typical Western New Yorker's diet? Let's look at that weekly ritual for many in our region, the Friday night fish fry. A local fish fry plate is typically a minefield just oozing with fat, featuring a deep fried fillet or two alongside a pile of fries, often made worse these days by being battered before being fried. Many people add even more calories and fat by also slathering their fish with high fat tartar sauce. As if that weren't enough, accompanying all of that greasy food is usually potato salad, macaroni salad, or coleslaw, every one of them swimming in full-fat mayonnaise.
What's our other local delicacy? Buffalo chicken wings. Did you know that a single deep-fried wing drumstick usually contains over 300 calories? And a regular order normally contains between 10 and 12 wings? And don't forget to count that blue cheese you're dipping those wings, celery and carrots in. That adds at least another 73 calories for every tablespoon. Sit back for a minute and think about that. How often do you indulge in wings? According to the USDA's "What's in the Foods You Eat search tool," if you sat down and shared your order with another person, eating only six Buffalo chicken wings you'd have eaten 1,836 calories and 34 grams of saturated fat, not counting all the calories from your blue cheese dressing. If, at the lower end of the scale, you ate a 10-wing order by yourself, you would have ingested 3,060 calories and well over 56 grams of fat in that one sitting alone. Since it's recommended that an average active person eat no more than 2,000 calories a day, consider what those chicken wings are doing to your waistline.
Everyone has to find their own way when it comes to food, but there are things to consider. Think about the way the French eat. They eat very indulgent foods, including fabulous pastries and cream sauces, yet most French people remain thin. How do they do it? They walk much more than we do, they take their time while eating, eat small portions, and they stop eating when they are full.
The bottom line is we all need to eat less, eat more nutrient dense foods, and move more.
So, find a physical activity you like and do it more often. Walk, swim, play tennis, dance, just choose something you enjoy so you'll do it regularly.
Be an aware shopper. Don't be taken in by fancy marketing claims. Read food packaging labels so you know what's in the food you're buying, and eat more locally produced whole foods.
When you do eat, sit down and take your time. Savor every bite. Give your brain time to register that you're full. Then stop eating. We don't have to be members of the clean plate club. Yes, people are starving in other countries, but it's not our job to eat more because they don't have enough to eat. That's not going to save them, but all this overeating may kill us.
If you're looking for more ideas to improve your lifestyle, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program. You'll find fun new ways to fit more exercise into your busy life, improve your eating patterns, and save money. Sessions are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502 ext. 217.
Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County.