Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Why America is fat

I have probably already discussed this. In fact, I know I wrote that initially upon arriving home, I simply couldn’t understand why we had so much food in our house. Here’s the reason: in America, we want everything here and now. This means that when we want food, it had better be in the kitchen, because we are not getting in our cars to drive to the grocery store just for some decent food. And this means we buy processed food. A lot of it.

If I compare the amount of processed food in my own family’s cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer to the amount of unprocessed food, the ratio is staggering. We have two humidity drawers full of fruits and vegetables, maybe a few bananas on the counter, a box of white rice (which I will count as unprocessed for the sake of this argument) in the front of the pantry, and a bag of brown rice in the back. If past counts (which technically it doesn’t), we have a few boxes and bags of that, too. Meanwhile, our refrigerator is full of yogurt cups, preservative-laden lunchmeats, fake shaker-style parmesan cheese, pickles, Juicy Juice, diet cola, and more condiments than you can shake a stick at. Our cupboards—not to mention the rest of the pantry—are stuffed with multiple varieties of crackers, pretzels, cereal, microwavable popcorn, peanuts (with or without salt), preservative-laden pre-sliced sandwich bread, boxed cookies, unopened condiments (I guess we like every food to have its topping) and every canned product imaginable: canned tomatoes, canned corn, canned beans, canned soup, canned soup stock, canned pineapple (sliced, diced, or crushed), canned tuna, canned gravy, and even an age-old can of spam (although I guess it should be considered a “tin”).

Any my family eats healthily (comparatively, of course). We grow our own string beans out back, and my mother even has a little herb garden with parsley and lemongrass. We are not people who stop for Burger King just because we don’t want to cook every other night. The closest we come to buying frozen TV dinners is Boca burgers, and that’s just because I don’t like red meat. We don’t have an inordinate amount of sweets in the house, nor do we even have a single bag of potato chips. But our amount of processed food is overwhelming. And considering the amount of time it takes to tear open a bag or grind the lid off of a can and dump the contents into a pot (or better yet, a microwavable bowl), the time we take to prepare that food it likely incomparable to what it would take to prepare a meal from “scratch.”

Despite making all of these observations, I am completely guilty of practicing American-style consumption. When I get home from work at 8:30pm on weekends, I don’t want to start cooking a “healthy” meal. I’m much more inclined to pull out a box of crackers and some lunchmeat than to wash, peel, and chop up fresh vegetables for a salad or defrost a chicken breast and start the grill. It’s not as if Ritz crackers and turkey slices are equally as satisfying, either. They’re just there, and the temptation factor is too great.

Buying my own groceries in England, I found that it was actually cheaper to buy unprocessed foods. Not fruits and vegetables, granted—those were always more expensive than the canned kind—but a bag of uncooked basmati rice would last me several weeks, whereas a box of crackers costing the same amount might last me two nights, at most. I could buy a bag of dried chick peas for the same price as two bars of chocolate. Preparing and eating them—sure, that took more time. But it was healthier and cheaper, and since I had the time, why not?

It’s not that Americans don’t have the time. If anything, they should have more time, considering all of their “time-saving” devices. It’s that we’re an impatient people. We want our gratification now, and if we can’t have it now, someone needs to make up a way to get it to us quicker, darn it. That’s what everyone in this country works for. That’s called Progress. And in the realm of the food industry, Progress is making us fat.


rome said...

you've seen me eat now you talk about america(ns) being fat!! i feel so j/k.

it's interesting, but there's more to it than that. there's a psychology to it (ritz crackers example among other things). there's an accessibility to it. then there's a certain reliability that most americans have to debate to themselves about it.

Kelly said...

I think it's half impatience, and half optimization. From a business perspective, companies are always trying to shorten the time it takes to complete a process. Having more time means several things. You don't have to hire as many employees because the amount of work that needs to be completed is not as high, and you can produce a larger quantity in a shorter amount of time. It all comes down to generating more revenue and decreasing costs. I could also get into batching, which would be a more accurate way to describe grocery shopping, but I'll spare you that.

Translating that into personal life, when people already have food in their house, they're optimizing their time. Driving to the grocery store and driving back takes a fixed amount of time. The actual time spent in the grocery store varies depending on how many items you have to get, the arrangement of the needed items throughout the store, and how long you have to wait at the checkout.

Now imagine that you go to the grocery store once every other day. You spend approximately 20 minutes in the car driving to the store and driving back. You spend approximately 5-10 minutes checking out. The items that you are purchasing are usually more spread out, so let's say that you spend 20 minutes walking through the store to pick up the items that you want. The total time of the trip is 45-50 minutes. Over two weeks, that is 5.25 to almost 6 hours.

If you go only once a week, you have the 20 minutes in the car, and we'll suppose 10 minutes for checking out. The time you spend in the store is probably 30, because even though you're getting three times as many items, you still have to walk around the store to get the items. This trip takes an hour. Over two weeks, you spend only two hours grocery shopping.

Trust me, I would love to go grocery shopping more frequently so that I could buy fresh things. I refuse to eat canned or frozen vegetables and fruit. This generally means that I eat crap all of the time, though. I've gained 6 pounds in the past eight weeks, despite starting to work out on a regular basis. When I am older and have made tons of money, I'll hire a cook. :-P

I really do think like a businesswoman and that is scary.