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Is the Recession Making Us Fat?

March 27, 2009 02:00 PM
by Anne Szustek
More restrictive budgets are pushing Americans toward cheap comfort foods and lower-priced chain dining establishments. But are our tightened economic belts leading to expanded waistlines?

Plunging Dow, Soaring Scales

The recession is definitely causing stress for most Americans, whether it’s over employment issues, bills or dwindling portfolio values. And what is one of time’s most honored ways of dealing with stress? Eating.

The rush of serotonin that can come from indulgence in chocolate, the blood sugar bounce from downing a portion of fries, and gratifying satiety that sinks in after a plate of enchiladas, can be food for the soul as well as nourishment for the body.

Those who might have preferred to find their comfort in luxurious delicacies appear to have chosen more low-cost options instead, if the recent lack of business at New York’s high-end restaurants is any indication. Meanwhile, Darden Restaurants, the parent company of such chain eateries as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, reported better than expected third-quarter earnings last week
Consumers’ dining choices may be dictated by their light wallets, but the health consequences might literally be quite heavy. Men’s Health magazine’s report card on “The Best and Worst Restaurants in America” looks at the nutritional value and calorie count of menu items from dozens of popular U.S. chain restaurants. Several main dishes contain more than 1,000 calories per serving—about half of the daily suggested calorie intake for active adults.

“If you want to head out to a casual restaurant but are worried about the check, try sharing entrees to conserve both cash and calories,” Ted Mitchell suggests in USA Weekend magazine. “Or plan a family evening around a meal at home.” Unfortunately, the prohibitive cost of some healthful food items such as produce, as well as a lack of cooking savoir-faire, can push supermarket shoppers toward sodium- and fat-laced processed foods.

For this reason, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver called on the British Parliament in November to institute incentives for people to learn how to make meals on a budget. “If you have knowledge about how to cook you will know how to buy efficiently and cheap,” he was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph.

With grocery shopping also comes the temptation to buy “naughty” foods like candy, which has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent months.

“Sugar is comforting,” interior designer Raymond Schneider told The New York Times as he put bulk candy into a plastic bag at Dylan’s Candy Bar. “There’s nothing more stressful than growing financial insecurity everywhere.”

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Background: Carbohydrates regain popularity

Years after the low-carb diet trend encouraged a decline in U.S. consumption, pasta has made a comeback as a recession-friendly way to fill up.

According to Nielsen statistics cited by findingDulcinea, Americans ate 0.4 percent more pasta last year than in 2007, although numbers provided by food industry insiders suggest a greater consumer trend. Major pasta manufacturers have seen a 22–42 percent rise in sales from the previous year.

While prices for staple foodstuffs—including for wheat, pasta’s main ingredient—have gone up across the board, pasta has an advantage in that it can be served as a side dish or as an entrée chock full of B-vitamins. Pasta itself can be a healthy and inexpensive meal, but care must be taken. Fat levels and calorie count rise when you add oily, creamy or meaty sauces or rely on refined white pastas rather than whole-wheat varieties.

White pasta is the most commonly consumed—and discounted—pasta in the U.S. Like candy, white bread and other processed foods, it consists of refined carbohydrates. Such products have various nutrients and satiety-inducing fiber removed, and usually cause a spike in blood sugar. “If this blood sugar is not used by the body, it is stored as fat,” writes Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler for As blood sugar levels crash, you also get hungry again.

Related Topic: Kitchen closed on proposed Mississippi restaurant obesity ban

Last year Mississippi state legislators introduced a bill that would prohibit restaurants from serving obese people. The bill didn’t win approval, but did draw international press coverage. The bill’s sponsors said they proposed it to draw attention to Mississippi’s obesity rate, the highest in the nation.

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