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Food indulgence in America: How attitudes weigh us down

January 23rd, 2009

“Whether it’s food or toys or cars, or in the past gas, it’s a sense of plenty and entitlement. Some have even said ‘duty’; that there’s a duty to consume. It’s part of being a citizen of this nation. We saw this in President Bush’s instructions after 9/11, when he said the best thing we could do was to just ‘go shop.’”

The idea of food as a commodity, as something we purchase and do with as we wish, is rooted in the public’s misperception of its role, says Dr. Timothy Jones, Ph.D. Anthropology.

“There’s a disconnect that’s occurred between food and what it is,” says Jones, who headed a 2004 University of Arizona study on food waste. “We’ve lost the realization that food is actually a living thing; that we take its life in order to survive ourselves.

“If we disconnect food from what it is and think of it as simply another commodity, we stop appreciating how important it really is. It instead becomes cheap and plentiful, something we don’t have to worry about. We can always buy it and throw it away.”

Or spit it out. In Buffet, a young man faces the camera and gleefully asks, “How many nations in the world would let you eat, vomit in the bathroom and come back and eat again?” “This sort of indulgence is not only OK,” says Schüll, “it’s almost a competitive sport. We went into the film not knowing this quality would come out in our interviews. Food eating took on a macho drive we hadn’t expected.

“Part of what you’re buying is not just the food you consume, but also the right and pleasure of throwing it away. Which is a huge power trip that flies in the face of any idea of vulnerability or scarcity.

“We usually associate eating disorders with females. In fact, if you want to see the buffet as a form of disordered eating, it was largely macho. ‘I went back and piled my plate. I got away with this and that, and came back and did it again.’”

The Resolution Rollercoaster

For many of us, a new year signals a rash of resolutions: Less of that, more of this, moderation in all things. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Add to our best intentions the waves of conflicting information over weight, diet and exercise. The debate boiled over in 2005 when the CDC released a report saying they’d overstated the health risks of obesity. The study, according to a New York Times article, suggested “people who are somewhat overweight are at less risk of early death than people who are thin. It also found that carrying around some heft was far less mortal” than previously believed.

Picture a mad dash to the nearest buffet.

But it’s difficult to argue surplus pounds aren’t a huge drain on the health care system when you weigh the numbers. Obesity in America calculates the annual U.S. health costs of overweight and obesity at $122.9 billion, with $64.1 billion in direct costs and $58.8 billion in indirect costs. Obese people are at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis-related disabilities, depression and certain cancers.

But whoever or whatever you choose to believe, poor habits lie at the crux of obesity and food obsession. As the CDC maintains, “It’s not a diet, but a lifestyle” of educated choices that increase your chances of living healthy.


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