Our national struggle with obesity is all over the news. Hardly a day goes by without a headline, including the one this week that 1 in 5 American 4-year-olds is now obese. In Washington, D.C., alone, there are 60,000 obese children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. I'm sure there will be calls for government programs and federal intervention to fight this epidemic, and while those might be helpful, if you ask me, what's really needed is a cultural shift.
Let me say first of all that I am not perfect. I could stand to drop a few pounds, and I love a good dessert. I have my favorite junk foods, and I am not a health food nut by any stretch. But I do have a child who is diabetic and so our family is more aware than most about the carbohydrate and fat content of many foods. We try to eat healthfully but have a special treat every now and then. All things in moderation.
Anyway, I was driving home yesterday after dropping my kids at school and I was listening to a nationally syndicated radio program. The guest was Paula Deen, the wildly popular Southern chef. She has a new family-style cookbook that she was promoting. The host of the show and all his sidekicks—except for one—were calling out recipes that they liked, and Paula Deen was going on about how delicious each one was. Of course, they sounded good to me, too. But as they went through two or three recipes, it seemed that each one was laden with butter, cream cheese, brown sugar, eggs, ... and more butter. There was a lot of ohhhing and awwing, and bring-it-on-baby comments about the food from the voices gathered around the microphone. (When I got home, I looked on her website at her readers' choices for their favorite recipes of hers; many of them involved not one but two sticks of butter; another had eight eggs and two cups of half-and-half. One of the top 10 favorite recipes was Krispy Kreme doughnuts drenched in sweetened condensed milk and fruit cocktail and baked. You get the idea.)
So, after she finished and they went to a commercial, the host asked the one guy who had been quiet during the interview, "What's the matter? You didn't think those recipes sounded delicious?"
And the man said, "There are too many diabetics out there dying for me to enjoy that."
The conversation stopped cold.
There's a reason there are no nutritional analyses in Paula Deen cookbooks—it's because people would be appalled if they saw the cold, hard numbers. It's one thing for Julia Childs's cookbooks and The Joy of Cooking—cookbooks from the time when they thought margarine was a healthy alternative to butter—to not have nutrition information. They're from the same era when people didn't know smoking could kill you, too.
But times have changed. We are now the most obese nation on Earth. We know for a fact that women make the majority of decisions in families about healthy food choices, and children learn from their parents about healthy behavior. So for a "family" cookbook to have suggestions for this kind of food for weeknight eating seems irresponsible to me. (I'm not talking about holidays and special occasions. We all eat poorly then, and that's fine.) But on a day-to-day basis, families making good food choices will go a long way toward curbing our nation's problem with obesity.
There are more aspects to this than just celebrity chefs—the lack of access to fresh produce in poor neighborhoods, the easy availability of cheap fast food (the $1 menu at McDonald's is one culprit), the "supersize me" portions at most restaurants, the doing away with recess and gym class at many schools, the hours spent in front of the TV and computer games—all have contributed to our nation's obesity problem.
I'm not sure that the government can—or should—do anything about this. But it's an interesting debate: Look at all the lives saved by the government mandating seat belts and car seats for kids. Libertarians screamed at the time, but in the long run, it's saved a lot of lives and money. It's a little different with this, because you can't mandate what people eat at their kitchen table. But you can try to change the perception of what's healthy, as the government did (through the Surgeon General's warnings) with pregnant women not drinking alcohol.
Over the years, people came to understand that smoking kills. And they understand that smoking has cost us billions in healthcare costs. Obesity is costing us billions as well—in dollars as well as lives. Maybe for her next cookbook, Paula Deen could put her considerable talent and charm into convincing her fans to cook healthier dishes. She could have a huge effect on a lot of people.
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