My younger brother often goes to Spain on business, where he’s observed “even the ugly women are hot.” He credits healthy Mediterranean fare and constant walking for their svelte frames. I mused that in the U.S., only New York and San Francisco had that combination – a cafe culture plus walkable streets. Unsurprisingly, we concluded, they had the thinnest and perennially hippest populations.
More recently, my Aussie blogging friend Andrew responded to my post below with questions about fat Americans. I’d no idea we were pegged as such until I spent a year in London in the early ’80s, when obesity was rarer and I was a rockin’ 125 lbs. Today, we are the lard-butt of jokes worldwide, and for good reason.
I’m going to address Andrew’s comments in my usual egotistic, fact-free fashion (for a more objective take, try my husband’s site). Since Andrew asked seriously, I’ll respond in kind, if I can, by taking on the major points he raised:
1. Prepared foods, additives, junque cuisine
I am highly allergic to corn, and high fructose corn syrup can ruin my day with headaches and stinging sore throats that no amount of Benadryl can soothe. I therefore grew up reading labels and am keenly aware of its encroachment into our food supply. It is literally in everything.
This highly caloric, condensed sugar-imitator finds its way into nearly all commercial breads, pastries, fruit juices, crackers and other snack foods, ice cream and frozen dinners. I am awaiting the inevitable announcement that it is tied to late-onset diabetes.
As for our Texas-sized portions, I again blame corn, whole mountains of it, used to bulk up cows along with growth hormones. Bigger cows, bigger burgers, it’s that simple. The New York Times Magazine did a story last October that described the coziness of U.S. corn farmers – who are highly subsidized – and the food industry, which, like any capitalist enterprise, will always try to cheapen its product while selling more of it.
Unfortunately, Andrew, the French and their wondrous cuisine are not immune. On our honeymoon in Provence in 1999, I had to avoid many foods that contained “syrop de glucose,” (glucose is derived from corn) a sure sign of the impending end of civilization if there ever was one.
2. Availability of healthy alternatives
I am blessed to live in California, where farmer’s markets and health food stores of various sizes and quality aren’t hard to find if you live close to a big city.
But I don’t.
Nonetheless, we make the 40-minute trek each week to a farmer’s market in Pasadena and then stop at an organic grocers called Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s, which carries its own line of gourmet and organic packaged foods, is also a favorite and closer by.
My friends, who follow Weight Watchers or Atkins to keep trim, think I’m nuts. I travel further and I pay more. But I was raised by a health-food nut (Mom) and I married one, so it’s all I know, even without the allergies.
So being a traffic-weary suburbanite, let’s say I didn’t want to schlep all that way. My standard grocery store makes its own sushi, so fresh it’s practically still quivering. There, I can also pick from any number of imported French cheeses and Italian cold cuts, Greek olives straight out of the vat, Australian and Chilean wines, Swiss chocolate, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, grain-fed buffalo or venison, organic milk and yogurt, an entire aisle of nothing but rice, and then shoulder-high mounds of produce, often labeled by country of origin (to help consumers decide whether Chilean grapes might pose a risk of e coli, for example). Need unusual varieties such as Asian pears or Thai basil? They’ve got it, along with every variety of hot pepper known to Man.
If that’s not enough, then even in the outermost stretches of suburbia one can find small grocers catering to ethnic palates from far and wide. Within a 10-minute drive are shops for the Filipino, Arab/Persian, Thai, Italian and Mexican émigré, and a bit further down the road the Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese amateur chef would find favorite ingredients and spices. And that’s not counting my two favorite bakeries, roughly the equivalent of a boulangerie and a patisserie, or, with a little less pretension, the health-food baker’s and the pastry shop.
And, if you live far from any of those, there’s always Mary Jane Butters, the wholesome and felon-free antidote to Martha Stewart.
Of course, if I don’t feel like cooking, I have my choice of fast-food joints, full-service chain restaurants, food courts, greasy spoons, coffee shops and all-you-can-eat buffets (American or Chinese, plus there used to be a sushi buffet I’m convinced I personally put out of business).
But variety isn’t the problem: it’s a matter of education and class, to put it bluntly. This has been documented by people much smarter than me, so I’ll only add an anecdote. My husband went to a nutrition class when first diagnosed with high cholesterol, paid for by our bargain-basement insurance carrier. Others in the class were in the same position, but fatter and poorer. He came home shocked that people simply did not know that a McDonald’s hamburger was high in fat, or why, exactly, that was a bad thing.
3. Opportunities to walk
As Andrew correctly put it, we should always try to walk instead of drive. It is the trudge to the grocers or cafe or bookstore or beyond, and not the 45 minutes bench pressing, that burn off the odd calories here and there.
But “try” is the operative word in suburbia.
When I lived in West Palm Beach, Florida, I could walk anywhere: the grocery store, the Cuban pastry shop, a favorite watering hole, even the doctor’s. Sure, I drove to work – all of five minutes, which left plenty of time for regular exercise either before or after my busy day. I was only about 8 lbs. overweight then, but much of that was actually muscle!
When I moaned to my brother about New York and San Francisco being our only walkable cities, I left out places like West Palm with its miles of waterfront walkway, or many similar coastal communities, college towns, resort areas and the more enlightened hamlets where sidewalks lead to hiking trails or the roads have bike lanes.
I am a big fan of New Urbanism, (check out this blog for more) the brainchild of two Miami architects, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, both of whom I met as a journalist covering West Palm Beach’s revitalization. Their inspiring work helped convert moribund Ocean Drive in Miami Beach from G-d’s little waiting room to a vibrant, 24-hour fiesta, plus they founded the planned community of Seaside, Florida (made famous as the set for "The Truman Show") and were the inspiration for Disney’s Celebration, an experiment in recreating our lost small towns.
Their philosophy is simple: restore harmony between our feet and our wheels. DPZ returned front porches to their celebrated place and hid garages behind the house, so people had an incentive to use their front yards, for example.
Duany defines a neighborhood as anyplace you can walk in 10 minutes, and within that neighborhood ought to be a place to buy a nosh or a few sundries, send your kids to school, worship and, naturally, work. In other words, every place should look like Paris or Palm Beach.
But I live in the country’s fastest growing suburbs, a place expanding with all the foresight and deliberateness of a tumor, and at about the same speed. Our area will add 1 million residents over the next 15 years. Judging by existing structures, our housing, work and shopping will all be segregated into vast areas unto themselves.
Thousands upon thousands of homes here are lumped in “neighborhoods” surrounded by gates and walls with precious few parks and truncated sidewalks. Shopping centers, malls, mega-churches and even some schools stretch amidst oceans of treeless asphalt joined by 10-lane intersections. The outlet mall near me boasts an interior loop of a mile. Think about that: to shop from start to finish requires a mile of walking – and that’s once you’re inside.
White-collar jobs will still be centered in downtown Los Angeles or the Wilshire Boulevard corridor or in city/suburb mongrels like Irvine, California, where tax incentives have lured a number of corporations. Blue-collar workers will still rely on the Port of Los Angeles and the hundreds of square miles of high-tech warehouses that feed off it.
In other words, the car is king, like it or not. To walk anywhere from my home means to walk nowhere. I can chat with other Mommies, visit a playground, exercise, take in the sunset. I used to walk to the nearest strip mall, but it’s too far to take a two-year-old. It took 30 minutes each way – not quite Duany’s definition of neighborly, eh?
This is California’s present and future. It is much of America’s reality, as we set the pace for the rest of the country. New Urbanism is an expensive fantasy for visionaries, and people here just want a cheap place to live, whatever the true cost in terms of health and contentment.
So, Andrew, the bottom line is what you already knew: we eat too much and do too little. Don't feel embarrassed about asking. This is only my view, and I'm not the smartest or the best-read. I am just one more skinny soul in a zaftig body. Cheers.