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What is the epicurean effect? Let us first define epicurean--it means: ‘To befond of, or adapted to, luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking.’
The public’s demand for higher quality, better tasting, better looking food, and more of it while we’re at it, is what I call the epicurean effect. This sense of entitlement to luxurious food has been heightened by television programs centered on gourmet food such as those found on the Food Network, Home and Garden Television, and the Travel Channel, just to name a few. These shows have helped convince people that surrounding themselves with epicurean delight at every meal is not only okay but desirable, even needful. This fixation on fancy, fantastic and fattening food has helped send Americans down the wide road leading to health destruction. Obesity is the major risk factor for so many diseases which are a leading cause of death in our country. You’ve heard me list them time and time again… heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type II diabetes, cancer. It is time we came to our senses and realized how destructive these practices are.
Just what has happened to us over the last few decades? One statistic quoted lately by officials in the World Health Organization, the FDA, and the USDA, to name just a few, is that the obesity rate in America has doubled since 1970. That is appalling in and of itself, but even more disturbing is the fact that the rate has increased in an exponential manner over those four decades. 15% of all adults were considered obese in 1970. It had increased to 18% by 1980. In 1990 it was 21%. Over the last two decades it has skyrocketed to over 33%. So, while it was increasing steadily from 1970 to 1990, it was a slow creep compared to what has occurred over the last 20 years. Incidentally, the Food Network was founded in the early 1990’s. Interesting to think our viewing obsession with food began around the same time a bad problem got suddenly worse.
There are other correlations to the increase in obesity rates over the same time period, however. The consumption of high fructose corn syrup increased significantly over the last forty years and a growing body of evidence points to this as a causal factor in the rise of obesity rates. Even worse, one significant study showed that while the addition of either glucose or fructose to the diet caused study participants to gain weight, those who consumed fructose gained more visceral fat. That’s the kind that surrounds and clings to your organs and is linked to higher risk of artery disease, stroke and type II diabetes. The fructose group also showed higher levels of LDL (or bad) cholesterol and lower insulin sensitivity.
However, we can’t blame our obesity woes on high fructose corn syrup alone, since Australia has managed to rack up a similar obesity rate using sweeteners derived from cane sugar. Another factor to consider is the fact that caloric consumption has gone up about 250 calories a day per individual. That increase equals a pound of weight gain every two weeks, if you change nothing else. That adds up to a lot of pounds over a year’s time. We are consuming more processed grains and more added fats than ever before. Processed grain equals simple sugars that spike insulin levels. In addition, the combination of fats and simple sugars in our diet is believed to be a major contributor to weight gain. Since the early 70’s, low-fat diets have been touted as the cure-all to obesity, and yet, the more low-fat products we consumed, the fatter we got on the whole. Many researchers believe this is due to the higher sugar content in low-fat and no-fat products. Fat is the carrier of flavor in foods, and when you remove fat, the result can be lost flavor.
Consumers demanded better tasting low-fat foods and manufacturers responded by adding more and more sugar. **By the way, this is why I warn people to beware of high sugar content in no-fat versions of foods. Always read your labels and know what you are eating.**
In addition to all these other factors, we have had an overall increase in portion sizes, both at restaurants and at home. For example, hamburger size increased an average of 1.3 oz or 93 calories between 1977 and 1996, portions of salty snacks increased by .6 oz or 97 calories, and portions of Mexican food by 1.7 oz or 133 calories. We have all heard the claims that America has been ‘super-sized’ quite literally.
There are many potential reasons for the increase in obesity in our nation; none of them single-handedly makes us fat. I would argue that the epicurean effect… the public’s demand for higher quality, better tasting, better looking food and more of it…has led to a mindset that lends itself to climbing obesity rates more than any other single factor. We all make choices based on our worldview and outlook and in the end, it is the sum total of all the choices you make day in and day out that add up to a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle. My goal is to change that viewpoint to one that will help make you healthier one bite at a time.
By and large, the American public is more aware of the effect of diet on their health than ever before. We are very food conscious, and efforts to educate people as to the risks and benefits associated with what they eat have had an effect. The World Health Organization has recently reported that obesity rates appear to be reaching a plateau, with a slow in the increases over the last few years. However, a slow in the increase is still an increase, which means that by and large, we are still getter fatter. We need to turn around our diet and our health as a population, and the only way to procure lasting change in the group is to change the way each individual thinks about food. One by one, we each need to take responsibility for ourselves and what we choose to put into our bodies.
-Chef Phillip Dell
Chef Dell is proprietor of Sin City Chefs and he was a champion on Season 15 of "Chopped" on Food Network.
He's worked at Wynn Las Vegas, Grand Traverse Resort, Benedicts in Las Vegas & many other restaurants. He's also a culinary instructor at Rancho High School in Las Vegas. Connect with Phillip on Facebook.com/ChefPhillipDell