Get a Diet, Get Fat

In the all-American health kick, it's not sport but food that's at the center of the obsession with healthy living. But have they got it all wrong?

Americans are on a health kick, or at least they like to think they are. An outsider who comes to live here, or even pay just a short visit, is more than likely to find him or herself caught in the game of eating and dieting. "You are what you eat", and there is probably no other place in the world where this adage can be taken quite so literally. Food is not just food here - it's a way of life. What and where and how you eat defines who you are. Every new diet that hits the streets becomes a fashion statement of sorts. Lets take the "Zone", for instance, popularized by Jennifer Aniston (Friends' Rachel Green and Brad Pitt's wife). It became so big that there are catering companies that can deliver "zoned" meals right to your door. The same goes for the Carbo-addicts Diet, Sugar Busters, the Atkins Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet; the list could go on and on. It's a booming business all right!

Dieting and a healthy lifestyle are all for sale, and smart advertisers know exactly how to make their products appealing to the present-day consumer. It's not hard at all. Simply add a word similar to healthy, slim, diet, or fat-free to whatever it is you are trying to sell, and you have a big hit ready to go. Supermarket shelves are filled with Snackwells, Body Smarts, Slim Fast, Weight Watchers, Healthy Choice and more. What they really are is nothing more than a candy bar combined with a multivitamin pill. Whether a Slim Fast bar has ever made anybody slim is debatable, but it has surely made a number of smart manufacturers and advertisers rich.

"Healthy alternatives" is another fancy maxim that people follow religiously in their quest for a healthy lifestyle. The market is flooded with those supposedly healthier versions of familiar foods. There are low-fat or even fat-free cheeses, yogurts, meats and chocolates, even chips and ice cream. One might wonder what they use to replace the fat, but that's a story in itself. For all the true Americans who cannot go without their burger, there are "healthy" alternatives such as veggie burgers, soy burgers, mushroom burgers, fish burgers. You get the picture.

We shouldn't forget organic foods, either. American consumers can now purchase organic products that are free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and are not genetically engineered. Isn't that absolutely fabulous? Except if it means that all the "regular" foods are full of pesticides and fertilizers and so on.

American pet lovers are not forgotten in this great health fad, oh no. Nowadays you can go on a diet and have your four-legged friend join you. There are special mixtures for pets that need to lose weight, get smoother skin, age gracefully, you name it, you've got it.

And yet, despite this health obsession, Americans are the most obese nation in the world. New data shows 88 per cent of Americans have diets that could be classified as needing improvement or are poor in relation to federal dietary standards. Diet and physical activity - or inactivity - patterns together account for at least 300,000 deaths among adults in the U.S. each year (only tobacco use contributes to more deaths). Eating habits are known risk factors for the three leading causes of death - heart disease, cancer and stroke - as well as for diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis. How is it possible, one may wonder, with all the healthy stuff flooding the store shelves? Culprit number one: too much of a good thing. You look at the label, see that it's fat-free (or sugar-free etc.) and think that it's OK. But it all adds up. You are constantly surrounded by temptation. "Buy one, get one free": you can't miss it, so you buy stuff even if you don't really need it. What's more, your typical restaurant portions in America are big enough for four people. To finish or not to finish? That is the question: do you clean your plate or let all this good food go to waste? Similarly, a large fast-food coke in Poland would be a small one in America.

College girls say it's hard to stay in shape. Several admit that throughout the day they eat like a bird to look fit, but then late at night order in a couple of pizzas. There is even a typical weight gain of college kids that's referred to as "the freshman 20" i.e. getting 20 lbs (pounds - about 9kg) heavier.

Food, food, food. Comfort foods, food for the soul, food for thought. In other words, in American culture food seems to be all that's good. But is it? For after all this eating, you will get your just deserts. As Samuel Smiles once wrote: "We each day dig our graves with our teeth."

- Katarzyna Jelonek-Allen