It’s All Bad

February 7, 2014

“Unhealthy eating is the new smoking.”—web advertisement

It started in airplanes. During a bumpy flight the attendant came to me and said, “Sir, because we’re experiencing some turbulence I’m going to have to ask you not to eat that doughnut.” She pointed to a lighted sign at the front of the cabin that said “No trans-fats”. I sighed and thanked her for the foil pack of dried brussels sprouts. I noticed it in restaurants too. Before I could be seated I’d be asked, “Regular or diet?” I didn’t even think about what that meant until the time I said “Diet” and was led to a different section and given a menu consisting entirely of salads. At first the two sections were the same size, then gradually the seats in the “Regular” section were made larger, even as the section grew smaller. This was before restaurants went all-diet. Servers didn’t want to be exposed to secondhand cholesterol. Vending machines changed too. Chips were the first thing to go, replaced by packages of carrot sticks and broccoli. Congress started holding its now famous Breakfast Cereal hearings. Toucan Sam, Cap’n Crunch, Snap, Crackle, Pop, Count Chocula, and others were called as witnesses, and shocked the nation when they admitted, under oath, that they had been marketing to children. Pop Tarts were moved to behind the register. Packages of sesame seeds, almonds, dried fruits, and edamame were put next to the register as impulse-buy items. Hershey bars, Butterfinger, Almond Joy, and other candy bars could only be found in gas stations and mini-marts, while specialty stores sprung up that carried Toblerone, Ghirardelli, and Dove chocolates. The Golden Arches became the beige hemispheres, and instead of being visible from the road they were now forced to have small signs only at their entrances. Bars put up signs that said “No cigars, pipes, or deep dish pizza”. The industry began to make changes voluntarily. Florida sugarcane fields have given way to waving fronds of asparagus as far as the eye can see. Family films dropped promotional tie-ins with fast food places. Scientists are still working on a breed of cow that will produce skim milk.

Other changes were subtler. Once on the outskirts of a small town I stopped at a diner that advertised its country-style breakfast: an egg white frittata and two strips of salted tempeh. I ordered coffee, and the waitress asked, “Do you want stevia and soy with that?” I’d been asked that question a dozen times, and it only occurred to me then that, somewhere in the mists of memory, it had once been something different. I knew then that it was just a matter of time. My family, my friends, and especially my children begged me to stop. They would see me eating bacon and remind me that each slice takes a month off my life. They don’t need to tell me. The Surgeon General’s warnings are printed on the package: heart disease, obesity, gout, halitosis. I would stop if I could. I’ve tried quitting cheeseburgers and fries. For a while I substituted salsa for queso, sucked barbecue lozenges. I even tried the cheesecake patch. All that happened is I lost weight and was irritable all the time. I’d go to the bathroom and eat half a pound of pastrami just to take the edge off. I’d feel better, but guilty too. Isn’t it enough that I’m down to just one pack of Twinkies a day?

The winters are the worst. At work I have to go outside and stand in the courtyard if I want to eat macaroni and cheese. One day sitting at a bus stop I was eating a bagel when a woman sitting next to me started making gagging noises and asked, “Could we make this a gluten-free bench?” I moved to another stop where a man glared at me for drinking Mountain Dew.

It’s gotten so bad I sometimes think about moving. There are places out west, I’ve heard, where people still enjoy fried chicken, where corn and potatoes still grow, where people churn their own ice cream and make fudge, where shrimp is always fried, never grilled, where there are even places that you can get gravy. Maybe it’s Colorado, where they’ve just legalized meth.

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