The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Pounds & Privilege

I’ve written previously about my attempt at dieting earlier this year. It was successful, and thus far I’ve maintained the 20 lb. loss. The reason I thought about it today was because of a couple of blog posts that made me think about how worrying about my weight and dieting were both luxuries; privileges, even, because (a) I have so much access to so much food that I’m likely to gain weight and (b) that so many of my needs are so well met that I have the time and resources to spend dieting.

Well, I wouldn’t actually call it a diet, more like a change in how and how much I eat because I’m not going to start right away with all these exotic supplements like propionyl-l-carnitine you hear about, no the first thing I had to do was learn the difference between a serving and a portion. It was a post a Preemptive Karma, about the government trying to get restaurants to cut portion sizes in order to fight obesity.

The report, requested and funded by the Food and Drug Administration, lays out ways to help people manage their intake of calories from the growing number of meals prepared away from home, including at the nation’s nearly 900,000 restaurants and other establishments that serve food.

… The 136-page report prepared by The Keystone Center, an education and public group based in Keystone, Colo., said Americans now consume fully one-third of their daily intake of calories outside the home. And as of 2000, the average American took in 300 more calories a day than was the case 15 years earlier, according to Agriculture Department statistics cited in the report.

… The report encourages restaurants to shift the emphasis of their marketing to lower-calorie choices, and include more such options on menus. In addition, restaurants could jigger portion sizes and the variety of foods available in mixed dishes to cut calories.

Bundling meals with more fruits and vegetables also could help. And letting consumers know how many calories are contained in a meal also could guide the choices they make, according to the report.

But I’m of two minds on what this all means. Becky offers this at Preemptive Karma.

When there is actually a market for KFC’s bowl of mashed potatoes, topped with corn, breaded and fried chicken bits, gravy and cheese, you know something is wrong with America’s tastes in food. As someone who has spent a fair percentage of her life on a diet attempting to retain the svelt figure my husband married, I doubt portion size is as much the problem as the kind of food we are eating. Too much fried foods and high-carb, high-fat foods and too little whole grains, steamed vegetables, and salads – sans croutons, cheese, and ranch dressing.

I think she has a point, but I don’t think it’s an either/or problem. For me, part of it did come down to calorie counts, and like one man in the article linked above said “when you have more information, you make better choices.” In my case, I went through a few months of almost obsessive calorie counting, but it helped me learn to estimate how much I was taking in (for a guy my height, age and activity level, it takes between 1600 and 1700 calories a day to maintain my current weight) and choose accordingly.

Eating out was anxiety-inducing for a while, because I didn’t always know what I was getting calorie wise and started to make different choices based on what I did know about which foods had how many calories. To Becky’s point, I ended up steering clear of high calorie foods like those she mentioned because of (a) the number of calories per serving and (b) the reality that a healthy or reasonable serving of those foods wouldn’t fill me up and would leave me hungry again later. So I ended up choosing lower calorie foods that were more filing.

So, I think Becky’s right and the FDA report is on to something too. But no matter how that sorts out. It’s still wrapped up in the privilege of living in a country where there’s a lot of food options and being in an economic class that affords me the privilege of accessing a wider variety of options and eating out often enough to agonize over various restaurants’ caloric offerings.

It was a post by piny at Feministe that made me think about this, when I read this quote from an article about yet another book on how we eat and why.

There is certainly an issue of affordability. The way that the rules are set up in America, to eat healthfully costs more than to eat poorly. If you have a dollar to spend at the grocery store, you’ll get a lot more energy on the processed-food aisle than in the whole-foods aisle. We’ve set up a system where it’s rational to eat badly. Eating in this manner is not a function of nature, and it’s not a function of the free market.

That is — make no mistake — a function of our agricultural policy, which subsidizes those unhealthy calories, subsidizes high-fructose corn syrup, and does not subsidize the growing of carrots or broccoli. I think if we want to make healthy food accessible, we have to change the rules of the game. And that means we have to look at the farm bill, because that’s where those rules are enshrined.

There’s the issue of access too. In D.C., where I work and used to live, there are neighborhoods where there isn’t a grocery store around for a mile in any direction, but there are any number of convenience stores and fast food establishments right around just about any corner. So, if you don’t have a car you’ll have to do your grocery shopping on the bus. If you have kids, well not only did your grocery bill just go up, but so did you blood pressure during the bus rides too and from said grocery store. We have one kid, take the family car to the the grocery store, and there are two parents, but the trip can still be nerve-wracking if the kid’s tired, cranky, etc.

I think we have two very different obesity epidemics going on in this country, at different ends of the economic scale and for different reasons, which means they require very different approaches personally, socially, and economically.


  1. I think about hunger and obesity for a living. I work for a Food Bank where I started a new program that aims to reduce hunger, instead of just feed the every increasing number of hungry people. Here are some interesting things that we have learned while doing this work:

    – Low income urban dwellers have to spend more travel time to get to a full service grocery store than do people who live way out in the country.

    – preparing a healthy diet for a thrifty budgeter takes about 13 hours a week of food preparation. You read that right, 13 hours. Nope, that doesn’t include time for shopping or for doing the dishes afterward.

    – Obsesity correlates inversely to income. If you are overweight in America, the poorer you are, the more pounds overweight you are likely to be.

    – If you use Food Stamps or emergency groceries from a food pantry to close the gap between what you earn and the need to feed your family, you may reset your body’s metabolism toward obesity. Buying highly refined foods that are filling when you get stamps at the beginning of the month is poor nutrition but financially smart: soup on rice will last through more of the month. But skipping meals when the food eventualy runs low at the end of the month resets our bodies to conserve fat — because our body thinks we are in a condition of (feast or) famine.

    – There is a direct correlation between a high cost of fresh frutis and vegetables in the neighborhood, and high rates of childhood obesity in that neighborhood.

    – How do you feed your family if your electricity is cut off and you can’t light your stove? That heavy meals of fat on rice from KFC will fill your kids belly enought to sleep through the night…

    So having the luxury of making poor choices, as well as being poor, can make you fat.

  2. I agree with what you and your above commenter said, but I want to expand.

    Low income urban dwellers have to spend more travel time to get to a full service grocery store than do people who live way out in the country.

    Yes, but…

    I live in the country and the closest grocery store is 10 miles away as is the closest gas station, so if my car is broken I can’t get to the supermarket nor the foodmart. I understand dragging a kid on the bus to travel far away to go grocery shopping is a pain, but at least there is a bus or a fast food joint so your kid will have a full (of crap) belly to sleep on while the country mouse does not.

    Many I know go grocery shopping once or twice month, thus, they buy in bulk. And which foods keep when buying in bulk? Yep, the crappy foods. Fruits and vegetables rot after two weeks, so like our urban cousins, by the end of the month we’re eating the dregs of the cabinets.

    I’ve been fasting for the last seven days (you can read about it on my blog) and have another 14 to go. This fast is giving me much insight to the way *I* eat and the way America eats. And I realize how health and healthy food is for those who can afford it. I would love to join a gym to help me along in my lifestyle change but it’s completely out of the question. I simply cannot afford to join one.

    As a full time student I don’t often have good choices to make in the cafeteria and with no access to a microwave or fridge bringing lunch isn’t as easy as it would seem. And, if I remember correctly, the food in my primary and secondary places of education weren’t any better than on a college campus. We are setting our kids up from the start to crave the wrong foods if all they are eating at school is crap. And by working our butts off we give less time to nourshing ourselves and our loved ones.

    Really, what this fast is teaching me, is how complex the whole ‘food problem’ is. Kinda like those of us who live in the United States.

  3. Pingback: Niobium » Fewd

  4. I guess by today standard we will be considered Low income. With two incomes we make around $25,000 a year. So when shopping for food I shop what is basicly on sale. I would like to buy organic but it quite a bit higher. Somewhat like the low Carb Take out the sugar in low carb food and real raise the price Organic food I’d be willing to pay a few pennies more. But when it comes to a few dollar more I have to look at the pocket book.
    I have bowl of fruit and I was suprise how cheap it was to do up. I try real hard to eat health for what we can afford. Yes I know all kinds of crap they put on our foods but also the pocket book plays a role on how we eat
    Congradulation on your weight lost

  5. On the topic of the cruddy food children are fed at schools, I was reading an article a few months ago (so I don’t have even the vaguest recollection where to provide a link, and no time to search for it as I’m on my way out to class, sorry) discussing a correlation between bad nutrition and bad behavior. Our brain is part of our body, so it isn’t startling that our brain chemistry can be affected by what we eat.

    The article in particular cited one study done in UK prisons where prisoners were given a multivitamin with their meals (vitamins are, of course, a lousy place to get your nutrients from compared to fresh foods, but they’re good for standardization in research) over a period of time, and the rate of violent incidents decreased by a statistically significant margin.

    Food for thought. So to speak.

  6. Degen: In the movie Super Size Me, he goes into a school for deliquent kids and talked to the faculty about the food these kids were being fed. Because the school contracted with Natural Ovens Foods. Because the kids were eating healthier foods, their ‘behavior’ problems had decreased substantially.

  7. Nio: Yes, there was that too, but there was also a prison study–don’t know if it was referenced in Super Size Me or if I heard of it somewhere else. Too lazy to search out the original article, but here‘s a follow-up.

    In a blind trial, one group of prisoners were given a multi-vitamin mineral and fatty acid supplement while another group were given dummy pills.

    Among those taking the supplements, violent incidents were reduced by more then a third.