Americans: Foods and Foibles

WHEN YOU look at an American under 25 years of age you see an individual almost unique in the history of mankind. He has spent his entire life in a society that has had a great excess of food. Few generations on earth have ever been in a similar situation, and it is interesting to view the ways in which this is influencing our nutritional health, our attitudes, and our behavior. . .

-professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle at the time this article was written

WHEN YOU look at an American under 25 years of age you see an individual almost unique in the history of mankind. He has spent his entire life in a society that has had a great excess of food. Few generations on earth have ever been in a similar situation, and it is interesting to view the ways in which this is influencing our nutritional health, our attitudes, and our behavior.

Audrey Richards, an anthropologist, has written a fascinating book entitled Hunger and Food Gathering in Savage Tribes. She found that the ways people eat have more effect on their individual or community behavior than any other biological activity. In fact, she concludes that nutrition is much more powerful in influencing behavior than is sex. Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist, also presents eating and nutrition as the dominant biological factor in determining individual and community behavior. Eating is our primary medium of communication. Affection, displeasure, status, accomplishment, punishment, reward all may be expressed through what we eat and how we eat. Since eating and nutrition are such important parts of our environment, and since our environment is changing rapidly, it is to be expected that our eating habits will likewise go through dramatic changes.

Our Food-producing Potential

In the late 1960's, when American food production was at its highest, we used only 5 percent of our labor force to produce more than five times the amount of food we needed. With modern mechanized agricultural techniques the American farmer has the ability to produce essentially unlimited amounts of food. Secretary of Agriculture Butz has recently said that sufficient food for all the American people could be provided by as few as 100,000 American farmers.

Our massive food production is changing so rapidly that there is good reason for concern for its basic nutritional quality. Genetic manipulation in the development of new varieties of vegetables, fruits, and grains is increasing, and the changes produced demand that we keep a close watch on the effect of these genetic changes on the composition of foods. For ex ample, more than two thirds of all the nation's green beans are produced in one valley in Oregon. Three years ago the plant geneticists developed a green bean that grows in such a way that it can be harvested mechanically. Thus, in one season, more than two thirds of the nation's supply of green beans was genetically changed to facilitate harvesting. But no one was charged with the responsibility of determining whether the new bean was nutritionally equal to what we have been accustomed to eating. Should not industry, agriculture, and government continually monitor the nutritional composition of such foods?

The way we market in the United States is also rapidly changing. We have the most elaborate, efficient, sanitary, nutritious, and expensive marketing system the world has ever known. Each year 5,000 new food items appear on the commercial market; 80 percent of them fail to attract any consumer interest and quickly disappear. But even so, 75 percent of the items in the supermarkets today were not there ten years ago.

Certainly no one could help being impressed by the way food is processed and packaged for consumption. But it may have convenience and eye appeal with little concern for nutritional content.

The production, marketing, and processing of food is continually changing as the amounts and types of food we eat vary. Our dietary habits and our health have been most significantly influenced by our decreasing activity. Every body rides to work, and there are few jobs that require much physical effort.

The farmer has his tractor and the construction worker his ma chines to do the hard work. The American work day is centered at the desk in offices and factories where there is no opportunity for exercise. Likewise, the auto mated, appliance-laden American home provides little incentive for activity.

Even recreation has been mechanized. The golf cart, trail bike, outboard motor, power garden tools, and snowmobiles have all taken exercise out of recreation to the point of ridiculousness. Sports catalogs offer even a "new electric fishing reel" to protect the enfeebled American sportsman from the demanding task of winding in his fish line!

Of particular concern is the American child who is becoming as sedentary as his sedentary parents. Today's preschool child eats about 15 percent less food than a similar preschooler did ten to fifteen years ago. 1 This is not be cause food is not available, but because he lacks opportunity to exercise, especially in cities where dearth of safe places to play results in a life centered around the television set. By the age of 6 the average American child has spent more time watching television than he will spend in classrooms for the rest of his life. In other words, the preschooler has joined his parents as the new man referred to as Homo sedentarious.

The nutrition of school-age children is no less affected by a sedentary existence. Buses trans port them to and from school, physical education programs are inadequate, and by age 15 or 16 the use of the second automobile in the family makes walking almost obsolete.

The decreasing use of body energy by Americans has been accompanied by a real decrease in the amount of food eaten; the per capita consumption of dairy products, meats, fruits, vegetables, and cereals has dropped in the past twenty years. There are only two items in the American diet that show an increase in annual per capita consumption: sugars and fats. Thus, not only the quantity of what we are eating is decreasing, but the quality of our American diet is also deteriorating.

Quality Counts

No matter how much one eats, it is important that the quality of his food be the best available. The job of minerals and vitamins is to assist our bodies in using carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. A diet high in these three foods but low in minerals and vitamins may derange body chemistry, resulting eventually in disease. A well-chosen diet, selected largely from unrefined foods, will be both palatable and nutritious, and will provide sufficient minerals and vitamins to ensure good utilization of the food.

This year 40 percent of the American food dollar will be spent eating meals away from home. Three meals a day at the family table is no longer a part of American life. In how many homes is there a family breakfast? At mid day father lunches at work, children lunch at school, and mother snacks at home. Even the evening meal fails all too often to gather the whole family together to eat.

Nutritionists from our Veterans Administration hospitals have observed the eating behavior of veterans over the past fifty-five years. At the end of World War I veterans wanted three meals a day made up of meat and potatoes, a good piece of pie, and a cup of coffee. After World War II the demands were for large amounts of dairy products and milk. During and after the Korean War there was, for the first time, a call for fruit juice and salads. The eating pat tern of Vietnam veterans is, how ever, markedly different. Many don't want to eat meals. When breakfast is brought, some put their heads under the sheets; then breakfast is taken away. In the middle of the morning they go to the canteen for coffee and doughnuts. Thus, they have little interest in lunch. In the middle of the afternoon they again go to the canteen and get a snack ice cream or dessert. So they have little interest in dinner. In the evening, while watching television, they have some beer and popcorn. This is their diet.

Vegetarian Diets

The change in eating behavior affects all age groups, but is most impressive in young adults. It points out clearly that one changes his eating style with every significant change in life-style. Organic foods and vegetarian diets have become popular ventures in eating for young people in their new life style. Fathers express their disdain, mothers lie awake nights worrying about their vegetarian daughters, and nutritionists com plain that everyone is more effective in transmitting information than they themselves the qualified professionals. Parents have called me with panic because a card from Susie at college told them that she had become a vegetarian! "What should we do?" they wail.

"Send her some carrots," I reply.

Vegetarian diets can, obviously, provide adequate nutrition if one follows the basic rule of a good diet that is, eat enough from a variety of food sources. Expensive "natural" foods, however, are in a large part frauds. About 3 percent of the American food supply is marketed as "organically grown," but only a fraction of 1 percent of our agricultural land is under organic cultivation. There is obviously a bit of a discrepancy. The so-called natural foods do provide new dimensions for communication among young people; one can get "back to nature" in the comfort of one's kitchen. But for those advantages one pays a price. They are expensive.

Tipping the Scales

What are the consequences of our changing food supply and the rapidly changing eating habits of the American people? The most basic problem is related to the decrease in activity. If they remain sedentary, people have to make a choice between eating in excess of their needs and becoming obese, or restricting their food consumption in quantity and selecting it for nutritional quality. Obesity is a real malnutrition problem in Western countries. The number of obese Americans has doubled since 1950. 2 Twenty percent of our teen-age children are obese, and the figure increases with advancing age. It is also quite clear that we have found no successful program for significantly helping the obese teenager or adult, and this is a tragedy. Obese youngsters are noncompetitive in any area that demands social acceptance: getting a job, peer acceptance, competitive sports, school admissions all are compromised. The obese adult is handicapped with ill health, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of ailments. Excess weight is, in fact, affecting 30 percent of the American adult population and must be recognized as a major national health problem.3

Those who diet to reduce weight or to maintain a coveted slimness may run the risk of nutritional deficiency and may function little better than their obese friends. Such deficiency states hinder learning, work ability, and recovery from fatigue. Girls and young women in middle and upper in come families have the poorest diets in the United States. The amount they eat at mealtimes is small because they want to keep their weight down, and their consumption of snack foods is relatively high because they have sufficient money to buy them. Poor girls have more nutritious diets than do rich girls!

So, in the changing life-styles of our sedentary, mechanized society, with increasing food short ages and the high living-cost problem among the urbanized poor, there is much to be done. For the sake of better health the American people are going to have to learn how to live and nourish themselves in a technological environment. Instead of spending endless hours and endless dollars trying to jam down the gullets of the American people more highly nutritious foods, when they do not need the calories and are not hungry, we must educate people to live more healthfully eat regular meals of good food at the family table. Avoid between-meal snacking of high caloric, poorly balanced foods, and develop a more active life-style. It is hard to change the dietary or living patterns of the middle-aged or older, but it can be done. I do think, however, that our children can be taught how to live and to eat better than their parents and to maintain a desired level of fitness in modern society.

An educated public will respond to and do better with their diet only when they have some idea of the nutritional composition of the food they buy. It is to be hoped that the new food-labeling systems will serve to enlighten the public and so contribute to the solution of our problems. But real success can come only with personal interest and involvement. Good living demands good nutritional health, and you can't have one without the other.




1. G. M. Owen, et al. A study of the nutritional status of preschool children in the United States, 1968-1970. Pediatrics (in press).

2. J, Mayer, Overweight; Causes, Cost, and Control. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1968.

3. Ten-State Nutrition Survey, 1968-1970. 5 volumes. Government Printing Office, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1972.

Reprinted by permission from Life and Health, March, 1974.

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-professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle at the time this article was written

October 1974

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