For some of us, food is warmth and love. We associate it with home and childhood: tempting smells that greeted us after school on a cold December afternoon. The kitchen served as the center of the house under the kindly direction of the Captain in the apron. If we were good, we might be allowed to stir the pot. If we were very good, we got to clean out the mixing bowl.
As we grew up, we found wonders elsewhere: the coffee shops and diners where adolescents gathered and food was only a platform for the real business of talking, bonding, and flirting. We drank cola and root beer and discovered sundaes, pizza and french fries. But real food was what we ate at home.
Later, we moved on to the pale imitation of food represented by college cafeterias and underground cafes that were heavy on music and political rebellion and light on the menu. We returned home for the holidays and again ate real food, as good as we remembered. Some of us moved on to the non-food of C rations and swore we'd never enjoy eating again.
We moved into the world of work: automats and deli lunches or expense-account steak and martinis where even the most exquisite fare took a back seat to table discussions. We married, moved into new homes, rediscovered the warmth and intimacy of a family kitchen and embraced the delights of gourmet cooking, homemade bread, and nouvelle cuisine.
At the same time, just below our level of awareness, the fast food industry started to blossom into the billion dollar gorilla it is today.
At first, it was small hamburgers and hot dogs with french fries and a drink. At first, it was an occasional visit to "get mom out of the kitchen." At first, it was just something fast that avoided interruptions in our race to the top.
The menus expanded to encourage more frequent visits. Drive-Thrus that sat closed and empty until noon suddenly discovered how to make breakfast items that could be eaten at the wheel. Chicken, fish, and ribs were added, soon followed by Mexican specialties, baked potatoes, fried vegetables, and sandwiches. The burgers got bigger and so did we.
Somewhere, a brilliant light bulb exploded in an ad man's brain and "Super-Size" was born. If a burger was good, why not make it bigger for just a little more money? If fries are the staff of life for American teenagers, why not make the portions bigger? Why not make the best purchase value a whole meal, combining everything the customer wants (and maybe something they don't)? Why not Super-Size the whole meal and really make money?
Rather than an occasional change-of-pace, the Drive-Thru gradually assumed a predominant place in our diets. Astute marketers targeted their sales pitches to the most responsive and easily manipulated niche of the population: children. Tired, time-strapped parents yielded to tearful pleas to visit Ronald or Jack. And our children grew fat.
Teenagers, with their deep-seated psychological preference to live in their cars existed on a diet made up, almost exclusively, of fast food, turning up their noses at the thought of a home-cooked meal. Active and full of energy, they ignored the almost imperceptible puffiness that their intake triggered.
What was there to worry about? The Drive-Thrus were a gift from heaven: tasty food, fast access, car-proof containers, cheap satiation.
Then we woke up. We looked at a world where even the average individual was clearly overweight and more than a third of us were obese, even our children. In a culture obsessed with the appearance of being thin, we were become permanently, indisputably, fat.
The few earlier voices of criticism increased to a low roar. The tasty creations of yesterday became the now-maligned culprits of our condition. To keep the money-machine viable, the fast food moguls adapted to the cries for change: the oil used for frying was trumpeted as unsaturated, salads appeared on menus, substitute sides for french fries became available, and "Super-Size it?" was no longer the order taker's standard refrain.
The industry breathed a sigh of relief seeing that a few changes made everything all right and the world could return to its infatuation with the Drive-Thru. We beamed with a sense of satisfaction that we had prodded the market in a healthier direction. Then we noticed that we were still fat.
Where had we gone wrong? Well, the "small" burgers were still big: two to three times the size of their relatives of forty years ago. The salads were healthy until drenched with several hundred calories of creamy dressing. To maintain the taste we had come to love, toppings were added: more kinds of cheese, butter, relishes and dipping sauces. And everything was still primarily fried: breakfast, burgers, chicken, potatoes. Even high quality, frequently-changed deep fry oil is loaded with calories to be deposited on our waistlines, hips, and internal organs.
Fast food has taken us out of the kitchen into a world where the demand for productivity makes us work harder and longer and steals away any notion of spare time. We run to keep pace with a society spinning ever faster and we eat on the run because to pause is to fail. Is there no escape? This is the Twenty-first Century -- returning to the food regimes of fifty or a hundred years ago is improbable. The old fashioned "made from scratch" meals require too much time and effort, except for special occasions, in our fast-paced, two-working-parents, long-work-and-commute lives.
What we can do, if we seek to withdraw from the enormous herd of heavyweights, is to remember that the way to health, slenderness, delayed aging, and increased longevity has been demonstrated repetitively by our little friend, the laboratory rat.
The secret is consistent, prolonged, cheat-proofed, under-eating. Once that core concept has been adopted, and completely internalized, the pathway to a new, thin you becomes clear: eat whatever you want but a LOT LESS. We're not looking at the old adage of "eat moderately and move around a lot" because we know, from experience, that it doesn't work. When I say a "lot less" I mean it. You may be eating three times a day, plus snacks. Cutting out a snack here or a dessert there may eventually help you lose weight - if you have twenty years to invest in the attempt.
Don't "cut back." Slash, sever, pulverize your portions. If you eat three meals a day, change to eating just one. If you like to graze on six mini-meals or snacks, cut to two. Reducing your overall intake by two thirds should bring you into the zone of your actual daily needs. Yes, it would be nice if you opted to make those reduced calories all highly nutritious but we all know that you are going to eat what you are going to eat, no matter how much the health gurus nag you. So go ahead and eat what you intend, just one third of your usual rations.
To keep your energy on an even keel, you can spread your one meal throughout the day. If your usual lunch is a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake, split it up: a shake for breakfast, a burger for lunch, a dinner of fries and a slice of cheese. Are you then on a diet? Are you using your precious time on specialty shopping and food preparation? Do you have to think about what menu items fit into your prescribed weight plan? No, none of these apply. You are simply eating the way you have always done except one day of your prior food plan now last three days. If you're worried about your health, take a multivitamin (funny, you weren't worried about your health on the same fare in the past, were you?) If you are a tall, large-boned individual or you feel (genuinely and persistently) faint, take a canned nutritional booster like Ensure.
It is almost too simple and too easy IF you have really internalized the concept of under-eating and have adopted a "can do,will do," attitude - the key to everything.
P. S. You'll save a lot of money too!
Virginia Bola is a licensed psychologist and an admitted diet fanatic. She specializes in therapeutic reframing and the effects of attitudes and motivation on individual goals. The author of The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a free ezine, The Worker's Edge, she recently completed a psychologically-based weight control book: Diet with an Attitude: A Weight Loss Workbook. She can be reached at www.DietWithAnAttitude.com">http://www.DietWithAnAttitude.com