And to do my own part, here's a healthy easy-to-prepare recipe, with inexpensive ingredients, that you can make a part of your more virtuous diet.
Recently I spoke at OMSI before 250 people, mostly health care folks and community activists working with health issues, at a screening of the new HBO four-part series, “The Weight of the Nation.” Besides thinking I knew less about the subject than anyone else in the room — which wasn’t quite true, as I ran into a catering server who seemed completely clueless — it was an eye-opening evening.
The film itself (actually, the series’ fourth episode) was compelling: well-produced and informative, striking a nice balance between wonky statistics and real life stories. My neck was a bit sore at the end from the constant head shaking as I watched unfold an overwhelming and growing picture of a national epidemic of obesity and its resulting problems for individuals and society. The film is well worth watching (check theweightofthenation.hbo.com or your local listings for more information).
According to the film, almost 20 percent of our children are obese, and many more are on their way toward that designation, with increases in ailments such as diabetes, the result of diets devoid of fruits and vegetables and loaded with refined carbohydrates and sugars. And an average of six hours per day of screen time — TV, computers, games and texting. And sedentary lifestyles caused in part by school cutbacks in physical education programs and recess.
The situation is exacerbated in lower income segments of society with fewer local parks and playgrounds and a large proportion of food purchased in convenience stores.
The statistics surrounding our nation’s agriculture are as startling, with 98 percent of our arable farmland devoted to the production of grains and potatoes for things such as white bread, commodity beef production, french fries, burger buns, mac-and-cheese, Doritos, Twinkies, and corn sweeteners that define just about everything that is bad for the human body. And which leaves about 2 percent for fruits and vegetables.
A family farmer in Iowa explained that even if tomorrow everyone in the country came to their senses and swapped that large fries for a head of broccoli, we wouldn’t be able to produce enough nutritious food in America to meet that demand. But not to worry, our citizenry — 30 percent obese and 70 percent (which includes the 30 percent obese, too) overweight, with the numbers growing — are unlikely to make that conversion anytime soon.
It took years to get into this dire situation, and the stranglehold many large corporations have on our food supply make nationally instigated solutions difficult to imagine, if not impossible.
But speakers and participants at the screening provided some hopeful solutions on the local level, such as Whole Foods working with school districts to put salad bars in the public schools. And the mayor of Nashville, Tenn., making it part of his agenda to add more sidewalks and parks in neighborhoods. And a professor from Portland State who teaches teachers and is making nutrition a key part of her curriculum.
As a chef, I certainly recognize my role as part of the problem, as well as the solution. Chefs are trained to tempt, to lure prospective diners with flavor and richness. That’s our reason for being, and what makes us work the long and arduous hours. There’s no intent to cause obesity or the attendant ailments that ensue. But if we’re successful in creating culinary delights that are truly irresistible, then we’re also successful in creating the perfect medium for overeating.
The image of the rotund chef — I was one until recently — is, in fact, a comforting one. “Never trust a thin chef,” attributed to the famed French legend of gastronomy Fernand Point, has been subscribed to by many. Only lately have there been profiles of chefs and food personalities that have conquered their compulsive eating and provided living models of moderation for their clients and fans.
It’s a delicate balance to try to maintain. Do chefs have a responsibility to preach a message of moderation? Or at the very least to offer — along with all the luscious creations that make their names and reputations — some healthier alternatives that can be indulged in guilt free? Paula Deen took a lot of heat for neglecting to do both, though her situation was complicated by the hiding of her diabetes and her coming out through her association with a pharmaceutical company.
But at heart, she was doing what a lifetime of training told her to do, and what made her a household name. I think she deserves much of the criticism she’s received, but I also think she’s been made a bit of a scapegoat. Because with the exception of a few isolated chefs who dedicate themselves to cooking for health and nutrition — where flavor isn’t the goal above all others — virtually all chefs share with Deen a common quest: to make the most delicious food we can. So delicious that some find it hard to resist. Which they don’t.
Which is why we’re turning into a nation of the obese.
But as the film makes abundantly clear, it’s not just delicious food that’s the problem. It’s funds being cut for school physical education programs, and two-income families without the time to gather for home-cooked meals, and the corporatization of our farmland and the removal of health concerns from decisions affecting our food supplies, and the removal of physical movement from so many areas of our lives.
But what’s hopeful is that there are so many concerned people — doctors and HMOs and teachers and nurses and filmmakers and nutritionists and naturopaths and, yes, even chefs — who are joining thedialogue.
And to do my own part, here’s a healthy easy-to-prepare recipe, with inexpensive ingredients, that you can make a part of your more virtuous diet. It’s one of my wife Leslee’s favorites, and comes from an old friend of hers. We eat it a lot in the summer, and with a green salad and some cold slices of melon it’s a great and healthy warm weather meal.