Saturday, June 30, 2012

Battle of the Bulge Week

A Week Without Sweets

This month's installment of "Things I'm Gonna Do This Week" was, first and foremost, an opportunity to prove to myself (and to all of you) that sugar does not rule my life, despite the many times I continue to reference all manner of desserts in my writing.

Well, "Battle of the Bulge Week" is over, and I can now confidently say that sugar could absolutely rule my life.

I've gone without sweets before (an entire summer, actually), so I knew that the success of this week was inevitable.  I was surprised, however, at how many temptations there were along the way... specifically a box of Honey Grahams sitting in my kitchen cupboard.  How I longed for a late night bowl of that honey drenched goodness!  Instead I made two eggs (still attempting to satisfy the breakfast before bedtime craving) and when all was said and eaten, I slept like a baby.

So what do I have to show for this past week of self-control?  Did I lose any weight?  (Please, Lord, I hope not)  I did gain something, though.  I have with me now a whole new set of facts that inform not only the way I eat, but also the way I look at food in general. 

San Diego County Fair
Food, as I began to see over this week, deserves our respect.  But I'm not so sure we do.  We respect coupons.  We respect time saving dinner options.  And maybe most alarmingly, we, as a nation, respect indulgence.  It's the reward for a job well done, the consolation to a broken heart, or the symbol of a milestone.

This week I wanted to look at how we can respect food more.  How it can help us to tackle the American obesity problem.  After all, food can't be the problem.  We all still have to eat!  As I see it, food is the solution.  We just need to know how to use it.

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to get informed about the "battle of the bulge."  The amount of research that has been done regarding America's obesity epidemic is astounding and fascinating.  Just when you think you may know everything about "eating in America," you find something that shocks you.

For example, one third of American adults are obese and another third are overweight.  Obesity rates among kids are up to 18%, and children born in the year 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of becoming diabetic.

It's kind of embarrassing, right?  Well, there's more…

You Are What You Drink

Since 1977, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has increased by 135%.  Here are some popular ones currently ranked in the Hall of Shame.

Rockstar: "The world's most powerful energy drink."  Downing one of these bad boys gives you the same amount of sugar as eating 6 Krispie Kreme doughnuts.

Tropicana Twister: My beverage of choice as a youngster.  This "juice" contains only 10% actual juice and has the sugar equivalent of 2 canisters of Reddi Whip.

Sunkist:  A 20 oz bottle shares the same amount of sugar as 6 Breyer Oreo Ice Cream Sandwiches.

Large McDonald's Triple Thick Chocolate Shake: On a personal note, this treat has got me through many long drives.  But apparently the amount of sugar that I suck through that famous striped straw is the same as 13 McDonald's Baked Hot Apple Pies.  Ugh!

These kinds of beverages simply do not deserve our bodies, our wallets, or even our attention.  There are plenty of other options.  Make your own shake with some ice cream and fat free milk.  Have a glass of real juice, if you must, otherwise just eat a piece of fruit, and so on.

Now this is possibly the moment when many people might stand up and begin blaming "High Fructose Corn Syrup" for the frightening statistics listed above.  It is, after all, the leading source of calories in all those beverages.  This might also be the moment, however, when others say these statistics don't apply to them because they drink "diet" beverages.  Well, here we go…

The jury is still out on whether or not High Fructose Corn Syrup is the antichrist as prophesied of old.  Yes, it is highly processed, but the real danger of the product isn't necessarily the product itself, but how much of it is out there!

In 1970, ½ pound of High Fructose Corn Syrup was produced per person in this country.  By the year 2000, that number had risen to 60 pounds per person.  We as American consumers do not need 60 pounds of High Fructose Corn Syrup produced for us each year.  Our bodies can't handle it!

Fructose is something by which our bodies can get very overwhelmed very quickly.  Why?  Unlike sucrose and glucose, which are other forms of energy, fructose can only be processed by the liver.  When the liver receives too much fructose, it begins making fats called triglycerides.  It then sends those fats into the bloodstream which can lead to the deregulation of appetite, heart disease, and possibly type 2 diabetes.

Now like High Fructose Corn Syrup, the risks of artificial sweeteners are still largely unknown, but the benefits of them as used in popular beverages are well documented: there are non!  Diet soda is 100% nutrition-free.  There is nothing in there that your body can use.  Even if you go out and eat a twinkie, you'll find more nutritional value than a can of diet soda.

And furthermore, new studies are showing that when you drink a low-calorie or no calorie beverage that tastes sweet, the body can end up craving what it hasn't received, thereby stimulating your appetite to eat and drink even more.  Once again, they just don't deserve our respect.

Holy Portion Size!

Now here's an interesting question: Is there any reason why Americans would need bigger food portions than we did 20 years ago? 

If your answer was "no," you might find these next sets of facts quite interesting…

20 years ago, Bagels were 140 calories but have since grown to 350 calories each.

A Piece of Pizza used to be 250 calories and is now 435 calories.

An Order of Fries was 210 calories 20 years ago, and has now tripled to 610 calories.

It seems like once again, we're celebrating excess here.  Bigger is not better!  If you feel that way about furniture, or hair, or belt buckles, I promise not to judge, but at dinner, we don't need to eat more. In fact, we have every reason to eat less…

  • More than 75% of Americans drive to work, which is a 300% increase from 1960.

  • In 1969, 42% of children walked or biked to school, but today more than 80% are driven.

  • Less than 5% of our country's population gets their recommended exercise requirements.

You see, with the addition of every escalator and remote control device, we've essentially engineered physical activity out of our lives.  So why have we decided to increase the portion sizes of our meals?

Maybe we're under a lot of stress these days.  Maybe we just want to feel good.  And since commercials show that happy people eat giant pizzas and buckets of French fries, that's what we do.

There are also studies that show any food with the right combination of sugar, fat, and salt becomes so palatable, it's downright taste bud-tingling.  Researchers call this food "hyperpalatable."  It's essentially the goal of every major restaurant chain in America: make the food as enjoyable as possible.  It's a worthy goal, but doesn't always have worthy consequences.

Take Cinnabon, for example.  Co founder Jerry Brusseau worked very hard to find the right recipe to create the nation's most popular cinnamon roll, and now you can rarely enter an airport terminal without smelling the mouth-watering decadence.  That roll, however, also brings with it 880 calories, 36 grams of fat, and 59 grams of sugar.  When asked about it, Brusseau says,

"If someone today asked me to create the world's greatest cinnamon roll, I'd probably think differently about it.  Twenty years ago, it was a once-in-a-while indulgence.  I wasn't so worried about obesity among kids.  Now I am…I'm very concerned that kids are growing up eating too many things like Cinnabon every day of their lives." (Kessler)

What Is There Left to Eat?

So with all these restrictions and warnings of what not to consume in our American diet, is there anything left?  Must we resign ourselves to eating kale leaves and celery stalks for the rest of our lives?  Of course, the answer is "no."  There are many more options than we think.

According to the subject index in the Oxford Companion to Food, there are over 200 different kinds of fruits (whortleberry, anyone?) and even more kinds of vegetables.  The earth is jam packed with variety.  Think of all the flavors that arise from different combinations of natural herbs and seasonings.  The possibilities are out there; we just need to use them.

It's time to start respecting food, and we can't respect what we don't know.  It's time to plant gardens, even if they're just herbs, and connect with where food actually comes from.  It's time to go to a farmers market or local grocery store, and pick out something new in the produce department.  It may just become your new favorite snack.

Above all, it's time to look at food as ingredients.  A burger is not just a burger.  Break it down, and it's a combination of many different things.  And if we mix up those ingredients, replacing some of them with healthier options, we can create foods that we love and will love us in return.

There is a very real possibility that our time period will be known in the history books as "The Obesity Era."  But maybe it could also be known as "The Food Renaissance."  It's not an easy fix.  It requires decisions of us, big and small, to be made every single day of our lives.  But at least then we will confidently know that our lives are, in fact, our own. 

Life is too short to be ruled by anything, no matter how sweet it tastes. 

Other Highlights from Battle of the Bulge Week

Here's a new recipe I'll be using for my Hot Chocolate (27 g of sugar vs 60 grams at many coffee shops):

Homemade Hot Chocolate

4 c 2% Milk
1 stick of cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
2 oz dark chocolate
¼ c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of cayenne pepper

Here are the books and websites I read over the past week:

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kessler, David A. The end of overeating. Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Rodale, 2009.

Haas, Ellen. Fit Food eating well for life. Hatherleigh Press, 2005.

Zinizenko, David. Drink This Not That. Rodale, 2010.

Dolson, Laura. Fructose: Sweet, but Dangerous. 2008

This is my favorite episode from an HBO Documentary I watched entitled The Weight of the Nation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Things I'm Gonna Do This Week- June 2012

For as much as I write about dessert, you'd think I'd be morbidly obese.  From cookies and cakes and pies and ice cream, to muffins, chocolate bars, soda pop, crème brulee, and pretty much everything made by Hostess, I've spent a lot of time writing about my favorite part of dinner.

But the truth is while I do enjoy devouring some high calorie decadence once or twice a week, I've always got my gym membership and a performing schedule that requires highly unrealistic levels of energy.

In short, I don't think everyone has as many opportunities as I do to burn off an entire tray of brownies.  So, to free myself of the guilt for encouraging that kind of behavior, I'm dedicating this month's "Things I'm Gonna Do This Week" to joining "the battle of the bulge."

Over the next seven days, I'm cutting out sweets and investigating what "eating right" actually means in our society.  We all know that we should do it, but for some reason we're not!

According to the CDC, nearly 69 percent of adults in America are overweight or obese.  That, my friends, is what we call an epidemic! 

Now look, eating isn't difficult.  In fact, you can sit on a couch in front of a television and not even realize that you've consumed a whole bag of Cheetos.  But eating is also necessary.  We can't just NOT do it!  So there must be a way to enjoy food and maintain a decent level of health at the same time.

Tighten those belts, America!  "Battle of the Bulge Week" begins right now!

View the results of Battle of the Bulge Week

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Speaking Hopefully

Stop talking right now!!  Unless, of course, you're reading this aloud, in which case keep talking.  But before you say one more word of your own, I have something to tell you that may forever change the way you speak.

Did you know that recently the Associated Press released a statement, by way of a "Tweet," no less, in which they legitimized the modern usage of the word "hopefully?"  I didn't.  And when I heard they had, I was very surprised because I've been using that word for decades and had no idea I was doing so incorrectly!  "Hopefully" you all feel the same way.

But apparently it's true.  Before two months ago, the only grammatically correct way you could use "hopefully" was if you were using it in place of "in a hopeful manner."  As in, "When it came time for chemotherapy, the cancer patient smiled hopefully."

Every other usage was wrong!  "Hopefully I won't get cancer?"  WRONG!

Well, this announcement has caused quite a stir among the so-called English elite. They feel as though the Associated Press has given up, surrendered to the ignorance of the general public.  Said one advocate for grammatical purity,  

"I don’t care if AP threw in the towel, I’m not going to use the word in place of “I hope.” But the incorrect usage is so common that I gave up correctly even my children on it years ago."

Now if you just read that lady's quote and thought it didn't make sense, that's because it didn't.  She has a big ol' typo in the second sentence.  Ah, poetic justice…

While I'm the first to admit that I love writing and grammar, I'll gladly confess that I ain't no expert.  To me, using language is more like painting a canvas.  There are a lot of tools to use, but it all depends on what you want your final product to look like.

I know I have at least a few elegantly ornate paintings hanging in the gallery of my linguistic mind, dripping with articulate metaphors and highlighted by a scintillating vocabulary.  I also know, however, that I have quite a few simple renderings, painted by a simple farm boy.  After all, I continue to have a hard time remembering “Laundromat” instead of “Laundry Mat.”

Which is why when I hear that this "hopefully" controversy has so many people up in arms, I think to myself, "Aren't we just talking about another color here, another tool for painting?  Isn't it just another a word?"

But that same argument has been used on me.  When interrogated about why I stay clear of the f-bomb, I have heard on occasion, "It's just a word."  And it's true.  Words are just words, but it's up to us whether or not we use them

The beauty of language is that all words are not created equally.  If we didn't assign any power to grammar rules or vocabularies, we would never be able to say what we feel, nor feel what we say. 

Still, it's important to remember that there is no one way to paint a canvas.  Everyone uses their tools in the ways they see fit.  'Hopefully' we agree upon the rules, but if the final product is a beautiful one, maybe it doesn't matter so much how it got there. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Custard Pie

I have a crystal clear memory from my childhood of the whole family loading into our great, white Suburban and driving to a local "greasy spoon" called Peach City for ice cream.  I remember seeing my little feet on the linoleum floor and looking up at the menu above the cash register, trying to decide what flavor I should order.

"What's Custard?" I asked my dad.  He immediately made a very non-grown up "Eeeeewww" face that I rarely ever saw.  In fact, there are only a few foods that I can remember my dad not liking: liver & onions, tuna casserole, and in that moment, Custard, even as an ice cream flavor.

But just the other day, I was looking through a book of my grandma's old recipes, and I stumbled upon one for Custard Pie.  I decided it was time.  I owed it to my adult self to finally give Custard a try.  Here was the result:

Looks good, right?  Nice flaky crust, caramelized filling...

...well, it tasted like mucous with a hint of nutmeg.  Which is why I have decided, with all due respect to my amazing grandma, to name this recipe, "Booger Pie."

I am not one to complain about the texture of food.  In fact, I tend to think "texture" people can be a little annoying.  (It's just gelatin, people, get over it!)  But Booger Pie was an extreme case.  It actually reminded me of trying the traditional Mexican dish "Menudo" while on my mission in Texas.  And that involved cow intestine.

So, after not being able to finish even one piece of this thing, I would like to take the opportunity to give some props to my dad.  For when he stuck his tongue out like a three year old and wrinkled his nose at the very mention of Custard, it turns out he had a point.  I love you, Dad.  And I don't love Booger Pie.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Getting Burned

I once had an eleven-day career working as a cruise ship performer.  Would I do it again?  Sure.  As long as I can still have the complimentary crème brulee.

It was aboard this floating dessert tray, however, that I learned a big lesson by way of a HUGE mistake, one that I will certainly never make again on land or on sea.

At the time, I was reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.  It was our last sea day before getting off the ship, and the weather was a little cooler than it had been in the more southern parts of Mexico.  I was up on the deck, lounging, reading, picturing the architecture of the Vatican, when I looked down and saw that my body was pink.

Instantly, a rush of terror caused my stomach and heart to switch places.  Usually if I've been in the sun a little too long, it doesn't show up until after I shower.  But this!?  I was still outside!  How long had I been there?  Was the sun even out?  I thought it was behind the clouds!

Well, the next day I got off the ship with the entire front of my body badly burned, and the next four days were some of the most painful I can remember.  I applied aloe vera, took cold baths, sprayed that sticky Lidocaine stuff all over my midsection.  I even popped some Benadryl to help me sleep.

And though I can't exactly remember when I made the vow, at some point over those four days I promised myself that I would never again stay outside for prolonged periods of time without sunblock.  EVER.

Now while this experience was profound enough for me to still recall the most insignificant details (ie what I was reading at the time), I don't believe it sums up how I feel about the sun.  Nor do I believe my sunburn was indicative of everyone else's experience that day.  Not everybody got burned, but that doesn't mean they felt the sun any less.

I recently heard a wise man (and sometimes wise guy) talk about this very concept.  We all enjoy the warmth of the sun's rays.  Sometimes we're only aware of it subconsciously, but we all know it's there, because we'd all know if it wasn't.  We don't need to get burned by the sun to prove we're living in it.

Life lessons come at different times, places, and speeds.  Sometimes they're profoundly scorching.  Other times they're not.  And though "getting burned" may often seem like an exciting or effective way to learn a lesson, it is, by definition, just an experience: one that is no greater than any other precious time we're given.

So regardless of how many burns we may acquire in life, it's just as important to remember and seek out our simple days of warmth.  The sun may not seem as profound on those days, but it's still in the sky, bringing a gentle glow to every breath and step we take.

Sunburns are worth remembering, but warmth, dear friends, is worth repeating.