Why America Food Culture Needs to Change

Or more specifically why I think America is fatter than the rest of the world. For the past 7 months I have been living in one of the most food-obsessed countries in the entire world. The default conversation topic is food, and it is a default conversation that I love to participate in as well, being, well, food-obsessed myself. Paradoxically, this foo- obsessed country is also one of the healthiest, renowned for its Mediterranean diet. America, by contrast, is significantly less food-obsessed and significantly less healthy and also, fatter. At first this situation certainly resembles a "paradox," but it quickly begins to unravel with some simple analysis.

Italians, and much of the rest of the world, think about their meals with much care and analysis before the meal ever takes place. For important occasions, such as Christmas Eve, menu discussions are frequent, and frequently revisited. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone thinks that their opinion is the most important. These conversations are undertaken with great depth, gravity, and severity. Italians may joke about less important things, like politics and the economy (both in questionable places), but rarely will you find the Italian to joke about food -- it's simply not a laughing matter.

Overall, I think, that this proves that Italians, and I am going to say other cultures and countries too (from less personal experience though), care about what they put in their bodies. It is not just on holidays that conversations like the ones described above take place, but rather such conversations are common throughout the day. Eating is important and should not be overlooked. Eating is a time of celebration of one's day, year, life, a celebration of an important or mundane event, a celebration of one another and of oneself. Odd as all of this sounds (potentially), to me these thoughts represent a healthy relationship with food. By contrast, an unhealthy relationship with food, is a non-existent relationship. A relationship of lazy indifference essentially.

Maybe it is not yet clear why a seemingly obsessive relationship with food is being described as healthy, and a non-obsessive relationship by contrast is being described as unhealthy. Well, it is because of the very specific consequences that I believe follow from an indifferent relationship with food. Caring about food, goes beyond simply debating what you will eat, but encompasses the overall attitude that this meal is going to be the best that in can be, in either its complexity or in its simplicity, and this includes, by default, caring about the ingredients, where they are produced, how they are produced. Italians in general are very skeptical of food produced outside of Italy, because to them, Italian produced products are the best, and will lead to the best food, and this is a healthy thing -- for the person, the country, and the environment.

Rather, an attitude of indifference reigns supreme from start to finish in the U.S., including indifference to the ingredients and the preparation. Essentially, many meals in the U.S. serve the direct purpose of providing necessary (and unnecessary) calories to survive, and little else. These meals are far from memorable, in addition to being prepared with little care and questionable, in every sense of the word, ingredients.

To me, it certainly seems that human nature has utilized food to serve other essential purposes, such as connecting and community, and when food fails to provide such things, it leaves the person "hungry" for more, and every meal that fails to satisfy these extra-essential needs, leaves a person "hungry" and "empty." In many of the great food cultures of the world, people don't eat fast food because they care too much to essentially throw a meal down the proverbial drain. Food has come to stand for so much more than simply something necessary to survive, and in fighting this inclination that has developed over the past 2,000 years, we have developed an indifferent, unhealthy relationship to food.

This is a very dangerous notion, as can be seen by the current obesity, diabetes, and heart disease trends in the U.S., and other countries that have adopted similar ideals and notions of food. When a culture embraces indifference and tasteless mediocrity, it signifies a great shift in eating attitude that is now becoming widely accepted. Essentially, that the cost of a restaurant meal should be reflected in sheer quantity of food, rather than in quality of preparation and of ingredients. Americans, in general, spend much less on food than most of their European counterparts, and yet, ironically spend much, much more on health care. To me, it is rather obvious that these two issues are linked. Indifference to what we eat (and how we eat) is indifference to our own health.

This is why I am advocating that we should all live to eat, rather than simply eat to live, because according to one Italian proverb "at the table one never grows old," and quite simply this is a table I want to eat at.