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Take back the pleasure: Five ways to recapture the joy of eating

Five ways to recapture the joy of eating

By Martha Coventry

Originally published on September 11, 2004

Before one-third of us became obese--and another one-third overweight--we once did things right in this country. In those days, we balanced the food we consumed with exercise and hard work and the average person ate moderately, except on holidays. Eating, for the most part, was a pleasure. And not a guilty one.

Ben Senauer is a University of Minnesota professor of applied economics and an expert on consumer food patterns. During his research and teaching around the world, he's seen habits and practices that remind him of how Americans used to live and eat. Below, Senauer tells us five ways Americans could recapture the pleasures of food and good health.

Moderation and portion size

All foods have a place in the healthy diet. In Italy, for example, where dinner is typically around 9:00, you'll see a lot of people walking around in the late afternoon eating an ice cream cone. But they have a small scoop, by American standards. In our country, portions have ballooned. A one-person serving in a typical American chain restaurant used to serve two or three. Even portions in the home have increased. If we could reduce portion sizes and be happy with one delicious helping, we could begin to shift our relationship to food.

One thing we can learn from abroad is to slow down and really take pleasure in what we eat and the experience of sharing it with others.

Quality vs. quantity (eat less, but eat better)

We've given up quality for quantity. Many of the traditions that made quality food part of our everyday lives--like homemade jam or even home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients--seem too time consuming now. If Americans begin to put the emphasis more on quality than quantity, which they are beginning to do, the food industry might benefit. France spends considerably more on food per capita than we do, in part because they buy higher quality goods. And their adult obesity rate is 12 to 15 percent compared to our 30.5 percent.

Healthy eating patterns

A little more than half of American adults will say they're dieting at any given time, but dieting, in the long haul, usually doesn't work. In fact, it's one of the least healthy things most people can do to lose weight. Experts recommend a lifestyle of healthy eating--a once typical American practice. Three balanced meals a day, with a few treats once in a while, was what our mothers recommended.

Balance between exercise and diet

The balance between exercise and diet is something we clearly had when people did less sedentary work and walked more. We no longer look at who we are and what we do and eat accordingly. One of the easiest interventions for obesity--encouraged here at the University through the Wellness Program, for example--is walking. A good diet is the crucial other half of the balance. In China, loads of vegetables end up in the family meal and the classic Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables, is followed in many cultures.


We've become an eat-and-run country. One thing we can learn from abroad is to slow down and really take pleasure in what we eat and the experience of sharing it with others. In a European restaurant, you have your table for as long as you want to sit there. For American restaurants, the goal has been to get in three seatings per evening. Food is cause for happiness; it's a way to express hospitality; it gives us a sense of belonging; it ties us to our culture. All these things make food not just a consumer product or a fuel, but an integral and intimate part of our experience on earth.