What we should be eating these days to stay thin is becoming more and more confusing if we pay attention to recommendations coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They just issued their most recent version of dietary guidelines that scolded us for eating too much fat and avoiding healthy foods like brown rice, lentils and beans. According to the recommendations, most of our calories should come from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils and fat free dairy products. But now, like a mother who holds out a chocolate chip cookie in one hand and celery sticks in the other, the USDA is trying to get us to eat more high-fat cheese.
The newspapers recently reported the activity of a USDA-supported nonprofit organization called Dairy Management. Their mission is to get you and me to eat more cheese on our pizza, specifically a pizza from the Domino's pizza chain. In an attempt to find a market for whole milk and cream whose sales are languishing due to the public's switch to lower-fat dairy products like fat-free milk and yogurt, the Dairy Management group came up with an effective idea: They recommended increasing the amount and variety of cheese on pizza pies, because people love to eat pizza whose cheese runneth over. Domino's tried it, their pizza sales went up and the dairy people were happy because they could turn their milk and cream into a desired commodity.
Don't get me wrong, I like cheese, so much so that a few weeks ago when visiting friends in Switzerland I devoured a slice of pizza covered with melted Gruyere. But like many of us who have been bombarded for decades with USDA rules and regulations about decreasing our fat intake, my first response to the report about promoting cheese consumption by this agency was, "Now exactly how is this going to fit into your new dietary regulations?"
There probably would be nothing wrong with adding more cheese to our pizza if we ate only one, or at most, two slices and called it dinner. But when pizza is a snack or appetizer before a full meal, or when at least half a large pie is devoured at mealtime rather than one slice, the saturated fat in the additional cheese will be doing more than tantalizing taste buds. Dealing with the adverse effects from high cholesterol and elevated triglycerides, among other things, is a big price to pay for more cheese on your slice.
This confusing message from the USDA (cheesy pizza or fat free cottage cheese) should make us rethink how we can be motivated to change our eating and indeed exercise habits so we are less obese and healthier. We don't have to be told yet again that a meal with excessive amounts of fat, salt and sugar is not as good for our body as a meal with plenty of vegetables, fruit, lean protein and whole grain carbs like brown rice. We know this, but like smokers who know that they may develop horrible medical problems but keep on smoking, we have to be motivated to change.
And so far no one has yet been able to figure out how to make enough of us change our food choices to stop our national weight gain.
Perhaps money and advertising are the answer.
Here Are a Few Suggestions:
- Connect portion sizes to price. If the diner doesn't want to be served a trough full of pasta or eight ounces of fish or chicken, offer smaller portions at considerably reduced prices. Some restaurants are doing this already but more should consider the reduced price-reduced serving size option.
- Create more fast food items that are cheaper and healthier than those offered by the large chains. Burritos made with beans and rice cooked in chicken broth and a sprinkling of lean beef costs less than a double bacon cheeseburger with fries both in money and calories.
- Decrease the cost of packaged healthy snacks like low-fat rice cakes, popcorn or baby carrots. If popcorn cost considerably less than salty, fatty barbecued chips, maybe people will buy the cheaper, less caloric snack.
- Why is there so much mayonnaise in convenience store tuna salad sandwiches? If the fattening spread costs less than the tuna fish, would the sandwiches have fewer calories? It is worth considering.
- Make people aware that salad bar and supermarket warming tray options loaded with oil (cooked noodles, stir-fried spinach, marinated vegetables) are going to weigh more than fat-free options and thus cost more. Salad bars should have a sign telling you how much more you are paying because the oil drenching the marinated vegetables and heavy salad dressing coating the lettuce significantly increases the weight of your container.
- Let advertisers and celebrities convince us to eat better and even to exercise. This may seem impossible but consider this: Americans have agreed to undergo rather unpleasant routine tests such as mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies because we have been convinced that these tests will prolong life. Maybe advertising can also convince us that eating baby carrots rather than pork rinds as a snack will do the same.
Until then, all we can hope for is that the USDA has not made an investment in plus-size clothing.