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From Feast to Fat: Living in a World of Plenty

Less than one hundred years ago, our world was a very different place. There was no fast food, except perhaps in cities at little vendor carts during certain hours, no convenience foods and swift methods to prepare them, no 24 hour continual service restaurants, and few ‘grab and go’ snacks except for perhaps candy bars. There were no vending machines waiting for your dollars, no canned sodas or instant soups, and no peel and eat things except for fruit- when it was in season and available.

People walked longer distances, and the vast majority of the population lived in the country, instead of the cities, where hard work and exercise was the norm and part of the daily routine. Preparing and hitching horses to wagons (cars were still a novelty), cultivating kitchen gardens, walking to and from school and business was the way of things. Meals were served on a strict schedule, and if you missed one, you would have to wait until the next one was served. Food was plentiful, but special holidays like Christmas, weddings, birthdays and such, brought out the feast foods, special high calorie delicacies that were prepared just for that occasion and no other.

Obesity was uncommon back then, and considered a ‘rich man’s disease’, and illustrations of the well off showed the men with obvious paunches, and the women with well fed curves. The paunch was a marker of idle ease, of having servants to do the grunt work, while the rich person sat behind a desk or lounged on the sofa giving orders.

The phrase ‘living high off the hog’ dates back to those days, where the more expensive (and fatter) cuts of pork (and beef) were eaten by the ones who could afford it, and the leaner, tougher and mostly fat cuts of the animal were eaten by the more thrifty people.

The majority of the populace was fairly thin, or at least ‘normal’ by today’s standards. The lower on the social scale you were, the thinner you tended to be. The desirability of women was linked to her curves: the curvier the woman, the more desirable she was. Perhaps they instinctively understood that a malnourished and skinny female would be either infertile or incapable of nourishing a growing child.

What a difference a century makes! Today’s Western world is a total opposite of the world of a century ago. Every day is a feast day, with feast foods easily available and served daily in feast-sized portions, and the rich are thin, and the poor wear the paunches, along with an alarming number of middle class people. "You can never be too rich or too thin" is the bellwether phrase of the time. Women starve themselves to sticks in the midst of plenty, then rush to the infertility clinics to correct the inevitable difficulties of conception, and birth children who will be indulged to the point of obesity.

If you have a craving for a hot meal at 2:30 in the morning, chances are that you are within a short drive (not walk!) of a restaurant that serves food 24 hours a day. And when you are served that meal, chances are that you will get portions that would have made a lumberjack of a century happy. And chances are, you will clean your plate, and drink every drop of the 20 ounce "medium" drink served with your huge meal.

You will drive to your job, and sit through the day, stopping to eat a lumberjack sized lunch, sit around some more, then drive home to eat a truly gargantuan meal. And do it again tomorrow. You will mow your lawn with a powered mower on the weekends, and blow the leaves around with a leaf blower in the fall. If you cultivate a garden, you will use powered tillers to cut the earth, and powered tools to cut down the weeds.

And you will wonder why your belt is so tight, and where those bulges are coming from.

We are eating in a style that would satisfy heavy workers, but doing the lightest of actual physical work and exercise. And we are paying the price. Many people are a few pounds overweight, and a growing number of Americans are significantly heavier than that.

Our bodies, honed by genetic selection to hang on to any excess calories they encounter, are unable to shift gears and handle the huge loads of foods around them, and we grow heavier and heavier. Our bodies are ancient and efficiently designed to handle the natural ebb and flow of food we’ve contended with for centuries, and we’ve completely changed the way food is processed and handled. No more ‘seasonal’ things- you can find strawberries, grapes, oranges and bananas year round. No more strictly defined mealtimes, you can eat whenever you want. No more waiting for a meal- if the urge for a box of fries hits you, you can swing in to the local drive through window and indulge your craving instantly. No waiting for the oil to heat, peeling and slicing potatoes yourself, or cooking them yourself. Someone else does that for you, instantly. And then hands you the equivalent of three servings along with a drink that would have made three people happy 20 years ago.

I would like to hope that this epidemic of obesity and instant gratification is a tiny blip on the long history of humanity, and perhaps it will be, but the signs of an imminent health disaster of an unprecedented sort are all around us, and no one is really paying attention.

True, the media announces that we have an obesity epidemic. Kids are fatter and more sedentary than ever. Autopsies of young teens are revealing arterial plaque buildup once found in middle aged men. Diabetes and joint problems are reaching an all time high. Yet no one but the health industry is paying attention. The health industry is probably quietly licking its chops anticipating the increased revenues from all these preventable diseases, while publicly decrying the jump in public weight. The food service industry isn’t doing any one any favors- they steadily increase portion sizes, and tell their workers to ask you if you want to upsize your meal, while keeping prices artificially low to attract your business. "All you can eat" has become the norm, rather than the exception in many restaurants. And people come flocking in, eating more and even more.

The true disaster has not yet hit. The epidemic of obesity hasn’t truly begun claiming its victims, but it soon will. If teen boys are displaying the symptoms of ‘hardened arteries’ at the age of 12, what kind of shape will they be in at age 20? Or age 30? Will they live to age 40? Chances are that they will not. Moderately overweight people can expect fairly normal lifespans, but what about the more extremely obese, whose numbers are skyrocketing? How long will they expect to live, with all that weight? Not very long, judging by my own observations of the people around me, and the obituaries. The sobering truth is that there are very few extremely obese people who are middle aged, and NO extremely obese elders. All the older people I see are moderately overweight, if they are, but the bigger they are, the sooner they seem to die. Harsh, but true.

What I predict is in about 10 to 15 years, these currently idle overweight kids are going to start dying off in droves. And the wailing will begin: "What can we do?" "Why are so many people dying?"

Well, here is my solution: Conscientious consumption. Yes, they’ll still try to overfeed you, but YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT IT! Cleaning your plate today is the shortcut to an early grave. It is not ill mannered to refuse a second serving, or leave stuff on your plate. If you paid a lot for your oversized meal, then either split it with a friend (the second plate charge is usually less than the price of a second meal), or get a takeaway tray and make a second meal of the leftovers.

Be conscious that the amount and type of food you are being served every day amount to what used to be feasts. Think about the feasts of old, and recognize that these feast foods are now everyday foods, but still served in feast portions. If you become aware of the feasting mentality of today’s food service industry, and strive to take back your true feast days, you will be ahead of the game.

Pretend that the drive through lane has spikes in it that will eat your tires. If you consider it a bother to park, get out of the car, go in and eat, and then go back to your car, perhaps you really don’t need that costly snack after all. Keep a bottle of water with you, and swig from it when you get a craving.

Stay away from the buffet places. If you MUST eat there, exercise the Half-Spoon rule: one-half a spoonful of the various goodies. When faced with a feast, the body goes into its primitive Eyes Bigger Than Stomach mode, and you’ll get (and eat) far more food than you really need. Take back the reigns, and carefully control the portions that you serve. Your new mantra should be: "You are NOT going to starve; there is PLENTY here for everyone."

This mantra should be your constant companion throughout the day. When your stomach growls, ask yourself, are you REALLY hungry? Postpone your gratification, ride with the discomfort for a while. If you are suffering from diabetes, take steps to keep your sugar levels correct, but again, don’t let your stomach dictate your desires.

Sugar and fat are your deadliest enemies today. Our bodies are programmed to seek out and consume fat and sugar, because in the ancient times, they assured enough nutrition and energy to continue to live. Our bodies crave these things, and our tastebuds are fine tuned to savor the richness of fat-carried flavors and seek out the sweetness and instant gratification of sugar. If you are AWARE that your body craves these things even when they are in abundance, and control your intake of these items, you are one step closer to regaining control of your weight and your life.

It doesn’t hurt to read the labels on food. Get some scales and learn how much a serving size really is. You might be surprised by the imbalance between the package size and the serving size. Often, one ‘small’ vending machine sized package contains multiple servings of an item (chips especially) that will trip you up.

The best thing to do is to take back your meals and portion control. If you seek to eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, you will be on your way to a better life. Apples, oranges, vegetables- these things are lower in calories and fat than foods that have been processed. Cuts of beef or pork instead of burger or sausage give you the opportunity to trim the fat and reduce the portion size.

If you eat when you are truly hungry, and increase your activities, you will be ahead of the great majority of the population. If you only eat feast style on feast days, your body will repay you with a long, and healthy life.

On a personal note, I am beginning my own weight loss program. I am not terribly overweight, but I am not comfortable at my current weight. So, if you think I was writing this from the smug branch of average weight, I am not.

2002 Sunfell

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