The first line of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is as blunt as it is profound:
“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The book itself is absolutely fantastic and has had a huge influence on how I think about eating. An “Eater’s Manifesto”, it’s a must read for anyone planning on incorporating food into their daily routine. I, for one, intend to for the rest of my life.
Today, though, I’d like to focus on just that middle part of Pollan’s opening line. We all know we shouldn’t eat too much. We all do it anyway. In a way, over-consumption is as much a tenet of the American eating culture as anything else – right up there with drive-thrus and Splenda. It’s part of the reason why diets are destined to fail. In many cases choosing to eat less doesn’t just mean changing course, but swimming completely upstream. You might pull it off for a little while, but it’s nonsense to make it a way of life.
I bring this up because we’re on the eve of the absolute greatest celebration of American overindulgence: Thanksgiving. A day completely devoted to enjoying as much good food, good company, and good football as the body can physically endure. Still, while Thanksgiving no doubt extols excess, it does so in a way completely divorced from what has become the cultural norm.
So what’s the deal with this cultural overeating? And what makes Thanksgiving so different? To me, it all comes down to appreciation. So much of American overeating is mindless – we eat because we’re told to, not because we want to. Consider:
1. Portion size: Very little food in our culture is amoebous these days. More often than not, it’s contained in very exact proportions. Not only is this thanks to a general departure from home cooking over the past half century, but also to the more recent “on-the-go”, single-serving lifestyle. Think about it: did grandma store her homemade applesauce in 6 identical air-sealed 8 oz. serving cups? Probably not.
A lot can be said of today’s on-the-go food trends (the vast majority of it being negative), but I’ll stay focused. In the case of those applesauce cups, there’s no real harm in doling out 8 oz servings. I mean, that’s about how much you’d eat anyway, right? Why not just eat the regimented exact amount? Here’s why not: by eating from that pre-portioned serving cup, you’re completely forfeiting your say in the matter. It may not mean much at first, but over time – after years of relying on little cups, bottles, and baggies – you essentially become a child, helplessly in need of Mother Corporation to tell you how hungry you are and how much food it’ll take to make it go away. Trouble.
This leads to a bunch of different over-eating issues. For one, you pretty much lose the ability to listen to your body. If you’re feeling full halfway through that carton of fries, chances are you’ll finish it anyway. But if you’re on your own, without the help of Mother Corporation – say, snacking on a big bowl of peanuts – there are no longer clear-cut parameters. Now, the inability to listen to your body turns you into an eating machine with no off-switch.
But portion sizes can lead to more underhanded issues, even from the unlikeliest of offenders. Take, for example, a bottle of Snapple Ice Tea. Looking at the label on the bottle, a serving of Snapple is 80 calories with 21 grams of sugar. That’s sort of a lot (the average sugar intake shouldn’t be over 32 g. a day), but in the land of Red Bull, it could be worse. Still, things aren’t completely what they seem, because those 21 grams of sugar are for every 8 oz. serving, or half the bottle. Huh? Do they really think you’re going to have half a Snapple and put the rest in the fridge until tomorrow? No way. Everyone knows you’re downing the whole thing now – blowing past your sugar quota in the process. Snapple just took advantage of you and your trust in little air-sealed bottles. It’s a scandal.
2. Combos – Not the snack, the marketing ploy. In today’s food climate, combo deals are as commonplace as serving sizes. They’re also just as subversive. For one, they essentially act as multi-component portions – a fast food burger seems sort of lonely without the soda and fries. Why? Because meal deals have conditioned us to view the magic trio as a single serving.
But that’s not all – by using financial incentives to boost sales, combos reshape what motivates people to eat. Instead of getting that bag of chips because we’re extra hungry, we get it because it costs 50 cents less than it normally would. Repeat that thought process day in and day out, and eventually “getting value” becomes a person’s primary motivation in making food decisions. Consequentially, “value” in this case means buying and consuming more food than we otherwise would.
So what makes Thanksgiving different?
It’s pretty simple. Unlike inadvertently eating extra-large portions or being subconsciously conditioned to buy over-sized meals, we go into Thanksgiving fully aware of the gorging about to go down. We acknowledge and appreciate the excess, and we enjoy it too. It’s my personal belief that if you fully experience the food you’re eating, you’re in the clear. On Thanksgiving – sharing a huge, delicious meal made with love – you’re not overeating, you’re over-experiencing. That’s pretty much what holidays are made for.
There are plenty of problems with American eating habits. And while overeating is certainly among them, it’s only a symptom of the much larger issue: eating thoughtlessly. Luckily, the Thanksgiving meal commands our attention and consumes our thoughts. It’s one of the few days of the year Americans embrace food like we should. So tomorrow, don’t worry about having too much pie at the table. If we ate like we did on Thanksgiving every day, we’d all be a whole lot healthier.