Food in 2011: The Nutrition Recession

Yesterday I listened to Living on Earth's Holiday Special, where they had on Firoozeh Dumas, an Iranian-American humorist, who talked about her assimilation into America's food culture. While growing up in Iran, Dumas talked about going to farmers' markets with her mother and buying food fresh.

When we moved to America, we all of a sudden discovered that there were all of these foods here that were already prepared. So, in Iran, if you opened our pantry or our refrigerator, all you found was basically raw rice or lentils, or in our refrigerator, it would be raw meat and limes. And, in America, we used to go to the grocery store and we would just buy these boxes and cans not quite sure what's in them, and try them. You know, a lot of times people go to other countries and they discover the new culture through museums, well, we were not cultivated people, so we just ate our way through America.
And eat she did. She continued on to say that she discovered Baskin Robbins, Kentucky Fried Chicken and vending machines - all things that would lead to her own childhood obesity problem.

America being a land of immigrants has prided itself for embracing the many food traditions that have been imported to these shores over the last 500 years. But in recent years, no thanks to the way the American food system is set up, many healthy ethnic foods are being erased for a more processed and packaged diet of Chicken McNuggets, KFC Double Downs and Slurpees.

With the generosity of a friendly dietitian, I attended the American Dietetic Association's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo last November. I had the opportunity to speak to many experienced dietitians and other health professionals about this crisis in the new immigrant community. One person said that this phenomenon is part of a larger problem around food in this country - a "nutrition recession" to be precise. America is the richest country with the most resources, yet its population has the worst diet.

Also at the conference. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, authors of the new book "What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets," were on hand to discuss what in the world - literally - is happening to the global feast. And it seems like some other countries are unfortunately catching up to America's food system.

"Traditional foods are being replaced by processed foods," said Menzel. "Add on the lack of physical activity, obesity is becoming a global problem."

D'Aluisio said that unlike processed foods, "people who cook traditional foods know exactly what they eat and the exact measurements for ingredients in their meals. Subsistence farmers in the developing world tend to be in better physical shape because of the hard labor involved with their work and their diets generally comprise of foods they grow."

One workshop I attended highlighted this problem within the Hispanic community. The presenter used real life examples of two middle-aged, Hispanic men - one upper middle class real estate agent from Arizona and a poor corn farmer from Tijuana. The real estate agent owned his own business, was married with two kids and lived outside of Phoenix. However, the man and his family were all obese from eating fast foods two times a day and virtually no physical activity.

Across the border, the corn farmer lived in a rented, three-room apartment with his wife, mother and six children. The man, his wife and the mother were all thin because they work the farm all day and only eat what they grew. However, the children are starting to gain weight because of their desire to eat American foods. Also, because of NAFTA, over the last 15 years the farmer has found it more expensive to buy fresh food from his own country on his meager wage, and has been forced to purchase the cheaper brands from America. He is now thinking about immigrating with his family to America since the need for corn farming in his country has become scarce.

"America drives what we put on our dinner plates," said the farmer.

But is this a good thing - I think not.

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