The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Top Reasons Americans Are Food Obsessed

We are too focused on food, but why?

Even PBS now has a food channel (called "Create"). Cooking shows are to food what pornography is to sex and have been labeled "gastroporn." The unspeakable savoring of unattainable meals.

"Obsessed" is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Where food is scarce, people spend a lot of time thinking about it - as immortalized in the musical Oliver ("Food glorious food") - but there is little scarcity of food in America.

When nations get to be wealthy enough that most individuals are well fed, interest in food typically declines as people expand their horizons through reading, the arts, entertainment and so forth. They cultivate their minds and pay less attention to their stomachs. All of that has changed in recent years. As a nation, we have become more and more obsessed with food.

Obsession means that food is the central focus of nearly all social events and not just occasions of feasting such as Christmas or Ramadan. These food-centered events are now a daily occurrence, as no office anniversary gets by without a frosted cake.

Obsession means that food occupies a great deal of waking thought, the recipes, the purchasing thereof, the gadgets, the gourmet shows, the fine dining, the Proustian recollection of meals past. It means that a bowl of snacks is rarely out of reach. But why?

Here are some guesses.

1. Although few Americans need to starve, large numbers are on diets, in the hope of losing weight. They are constantly hungry. This is the Oliver phenomenon far from the poorhouse walls.

2. With the increased number of dual earner households, proper meals are no longer prepared on a regular basis so that there may be real nutritional deficiencies that cause people to feel hungry.

3. Insufficient fiber in the diet means that blood sugar levels fluctuate a great deal, for example. When blood sugar is low we feel hungry, hence inclined to snack between meals.

4. Inactivity, is another issue. Experiments on rats have found that when they were kept inactive, they ate more than they needed to. Prolonged physical activity mobilizes fats and reduces hunger.

5. The proliferation of fast food restaurants around the country since the 1920s means that food is no longer consumed mainly at mealtimes but at any hour of the day or night. Rapidly increasing portion sizes are another possible symptom of food obsession -- a bigger fix is needed to produce the same high. The bigger portions also reflect the fact that people have become bigger.

6. Eating alone is another sign of food obsession. In part, this is a sign not just of the disappearance of family meals but the decline of local communities. Food sharing contributes to social cohesion in all societies. Has food itself become a substitute for meaningful social interactions?

7. The food industry may claim some credit, or blame, due to proliferation of junk foods and food advertisements designed to stimulate constant snacking.

Although some historians feel that Americans have always been obsessed with food, most acknowledge that the obsession has reached a peak in the past decade or so.

Americans are not alone in their food obsession, of course. The excesses of this fast food nation are catching on around the world.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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