Are handheld convenience foods the bane of the American diet?

fast food dinner
CC BY 2.0 Robyn Lee

If only people would cook more food from scratch, it could ameliorate many issues, not least of all obesity.

Take a moment to think about pizza, a food that is eaten by one in five American kids every day and has skyrocketed to the position of “7th most frequently consumed evening meal in the United States.” Sure, it's salty greasy deliciousness is appealing once in a while, but why exactly has it become so popular?

Now think about sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, burritos, tacos, chicken wings, barbecued ribs, loaded nachos, etc. There is a common denominator among all of these popular foods, and it’s the fact that these are eaten almost exclusively with one’s hands. Whether taken out of the freezer and microwaved on a paper napkin, or slapped together on a kitchen counter, or picked up at a drive-thru, the sad reality is that these convenience foods form the dietary backbone of many U.S. families.

They are popular precisely because they are fast and easy and can be eaten without creating a mega pile of dishes or disrupting the evening routine of watching TV, clicking a mouse, surfing on one’s phone, or driving to extracurricular activities. Their glorious convenience outweighs concerns about their lack of nutritional value.

But this love of convenience could be what’s driving the appalling unhealthiness of North Americans in general. An article recently posted to Calorie Lab suggests an intriguing solution to the obesity problem:

What if we all stopped eating with our hands and put ourselves on a self-imposed “knife and fork” diet? Could that make us all healthier?

While the article has no scientific basis, author Robert Wieder raises some issues worth consideration:

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if somebody conducted a study which found that, say, 60 percent of the average citizen’s daily caloric intake nowadays is delivered by food items that do not require utensils. I also wouldn’t be surprised if a further study determined that our national overweight and obesity rates have increased parallel to our growing consumption of handheld foods at mealtimes.”

I think this hypothesis makes a lot of sense. Eating handheld convenience foods encourages mindless eating; it’s harder to keep track of how many pieces of fried chicken have been taken from the bucket when one is multitasking. It’s easier to eat frequent snack-meals if prepared food is in the house, increasing the overall number of calories taken in on a daily basis. Most convenience foods are loaded with unhealthy amounts of sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives to make them taste half-decent.

Tracking and limiting the number of handheld meals eaten on a weekly basis could be an effective way to improve individual health. Wieder’s suggestion brings to mind one of Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” Suddenly pizza doesn’t seem so convenient after all when you have to make dough, simmer a quick tomato sauce, grate the cheese, and slice the vegetables.

Tags: Cooking | Diet | Health

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