The American diet suffers from a split personality

Ice cream is a fan favorite in the American diet.  Credit: Steve Munday/Allsport

On April 12, 2000, at 2:30 a.m., Mary Hernandez was writing a press release in her Manhattan office. Her company was announcing that it had just purchased Slim-Fast, manufacturer of low-cal liquid lunches for dieters.

Six hours later, Hernandez was back at her computer to compose a second announcement. Her company had made another buy: this time it was Ben & Jerry's, the manufacturer of premiumand very fatteningice cream.

Hernandez works in the corporate communications office for Unilever, the second-largest global food company. The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate may have a global reach, but it clearly has a firm understanding of the American appetite and its split personality.

We want to have our cake and diet, too.

Evidence of America's Jekyll and Hyde relationship with food is everywhere.

Family Circle magazine's August cover screams the headline: The "I Love Junk Food" Diet. Inside the same magazine, a full-page ad urges mothers to stock the summer refrigerator with Snickers candy bars. A few pages later, another ad promotes a revolutionary Norwegian diet plan.

A walk through the frozen food aisle at any American supermarket would likely leave a visitor from another country amazed. Breyer's Chocolate Caramel Nut Ice Cream abuts Cool Whip Free. Hungry-Man frozen dinners boast "over 1 lb. of food," while Stouffer's Lean Cuisines, next glass door down, tout their low calorie and fat numbers prominently on the package. Facing the low-calorie frozen dinners are Godiva ice cream, Mrs. Smith's pies and Dove Bars.

Premium ice cream is so popular that Safeway (parent company of Tom Thumb stores) has just introduced its own private-label premium ice cream, Select. At the same time, sugar-free ice cream desserts proliferate.

The American habit of eating from the low-fat and the ultra-fat ends of the food spectrumsometimes in the same sitting (washing down a chunk of chocolate cake with a Diet Coke)is so widely acknowledged that industry watchers have names for it: "shape up/pig out" and "shopper schizophrenia."

"We see that trend in new product introductions," said Lynn Dornblaser, editorial director of New Product News magazine in Chicago. "There are more full-fat products and more low-fat products."

This year, the only national butter brand introduced Land O Lakes Ultra Creamy Buttera butter with higher-than-usual butterfat content. Just two years ago, Unilever introduced Brummel & Brown, a low-fat yogurt spread. The two products sit nearly side by side in the dairy case.

The Food Channel TrendWire's Art Siemering says these products are not, as you might expect, catering to different consumers.

"I think it's the same consumers buying some of each. They're sacrificing a little bit to enable them to go for indulgences. We see it all the time with restaurant meals. People will eat carefully through the meal, maybe even a salad, but then they'll indulge in a rich dessert," Siemering said.

"You can't segment the consumer by population," said New Product News' Dornblaser. "You have to look more at occasions. A lot of people will eat Lean Cuisine for lunch Monday through Friday and then they'll have Haagen-Dazs after dinner."

These radical meal swings are uniquely American.

"We look at things globally," said Dornblaser of the magazine's perspective. "Germans, other than bratwurst and beer, tend to look at food as fuel. A lot of their new products have medicinal additives," like the nutriceuticals that have popped up some on the American scene.

"In France, food is about celebration and family. There you see very few low-fat products introduced."

And though it may seem that the American penchant for choice is fed by food manufacturers and processors (25,000 new products are introduced annually), Dornblaser says it's about the same in Europe.

"All of the EU and a good portion of Eastern Europe fits into an area that is the size of the United States, and the product introductions of all those countries added together is about the same as ours."

One element that feeds Americans' eating dichotomy is that U.S. food costs are the lowest in the world. According to American Farm Bureau statistics, Americans spend 10.9 percent of their income on food, while the French spend 15.2 percent, Germans 17.7 percent and Mexicans 33.2 percent. With such low food costs, most Americans needn't ponder a food choice. Want steak for dinner? No problem. Want a quarter-pounder for lunch? OK. Feel guilty after both? Probably.

Another factor that feeds America's predilection for options is real estate.

"Americans shop once a week," said Dornblaser. "They drive their big SUV to a big store and fill it with groceries and take it back to their big homes. In Europe, because most home refrigerators fit under the counter in much smaller homes, shopping is often done every day. The stores are smaller, too, so the choices in each individual store aren't as varied."

If an American shopper wants premium ice cream and low-fat frozen yogurt, she has plenty of room in her freezer for both. If she wants to eat an 18-ounce bag of chips at one sitting, she has a bag on hand.

Hence the need for the Diet Pepsi.

Americans have had some level of feast-or-fast relationship with food ever since the the Europeans arrived.

The robber barons of the railroad era were known for lavish living, and eating. Financier James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady was known to consume four dozen oysters as the first course for dinner. A "Horseback Dinner," hosted at Louis Sherry's New York restaurant, featured riders and their horses who were lifted to the third-floor ballroom via the elevators.

Food for the Everyman was hearty, too; despite the shift toward industrial jobs, most of the country was still agricultural, and farm labor required calories.

At the other end of the spectrum, John Harvey Kellogg's Medical and Surgical Sanitarium in Michigan was going strong, with thousands of people visiting annually. There he taught patients to count calories, avoid sugar and get regular exercise. He called his health program, which included a vegetarian diet, "biologic living."

In 1900, a zaftig figure was considered the epitome of beauty, prompting the use of such products as Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic: "Makes children and adults as fat as pigs." By the '20s, the ideal had slimmed down, and weight-loss tonics, some including arsenic, were being marketed.

MacMasters University history professor Harvey Levenstein, who examines America's eating habits in his books Revolution at the Table (Oxford Press, $30) and The Paradox of Plenty, (Replica Books, $30.95) dates the country's dual personality on food back to the men in the funny hats and the white collars who sailed the Atlantic.

"I think it's all related to the Protestants, the Puritan settlers of this country," he said. "All the visitors to this country remarked on the bounty of the country, the great amount of food here and how inexpensive it was. America has never had a famine or a lack of food. At the same time, we had this Puritan streak that said it was a sin to indulge ourselves."

Laura Shapiro spent 15 years covering America's food patterns for Newsweek. Now she's working on a book about the food of the 1950s.

"We think of that time as the nadir of American food, when it was all about cans and speed," said Shapiro. "But there was some wonderful food then, and people like James Beard were doing great work.

"Today, though, I think we've handed over our appetites to the food companies. Our relationship to food is not based on anything that makes sense. It's not based on our bodies, it's not based on family life and the family sitting down to the table, it's not based on what is good for the planet. There's no relationship with the body and the soul and the heart," Shapiro said.

"But on the other hand, there are people who care deeply about food, and it's easier to find good food than it has ever been. There are more farmer's markets, there are dozens of wonderful cookbooks.

"It's very complicated," said Shapiro, sighing.

Registered dietitian Joan Carter of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, thinks a lot of elements feed our love-hate relationship with food.

"We're a nation of self-starters and we value control," Carter says. "We think we can control food, too. We worry that our children have gotten fatter, so we restrict what they eat. Then, of course, when they have the chance, the first thing they'll eat is what they've been told not to.

"Then the child feels guilty and to some extent they take that guilt with them into adulthood and their adult views about food.

"Then we eat on the run instead of sitting down at the table," Carter says. "And because food is cheap, we eat too much of it."

"In some cases maybe it's the noise around us," said TrendWire's Siemering. "We have a sense of guilt instilled by others, those people who feel so free to give us that steady stream of advice on how to run our lives. But even after trying to be good, it's like the old New Yorker cartoon when the little boy says, 'I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it.'"

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