Overeating in the Big Easy

Misunderstanding what breaks our diets

Visitors to New Orleans should loosen their belts and hold on tight, as they’re likely to leave our city stuffed. Those of us who call this lowland bit of paradise home know the score. We have had our own Creole branded cuisine for more than 200 years with roots in Africa and Haiti finely tuned by waves of immigrants from France, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Italy and, more recently, Vietnam. In addition to some of the finest food in the world, we have a roving street vendor named after a vegetable, a minister known for eating at more than 700 restaurants and some of the most overweight people in the country.

We revel in our food, both home-cooked and restaurant prepared. It is an expression of our culture; we put our traditions, hospitality, heart and soul into our food. It is why our Italian grandmothers still cook meatballs and spaghetti every Sunday and why chefs sneak out of the kitchen to glad-hand patrons. We cook for those we love, we eat for enjoyment and we indulge in everything those meals hold sacred.

According to federal statistics, Louisiana has the second-highest obesity rate in the country trailing only Mississippi probably because they have a better-funded state health department with more accurate statistics. But our weight problem is really a nationwide problem. According to a recent report “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012,” 30 percent of adult Americans are obese, and that number is expected to double by 2030. Here at home, obesity is a major contributing factor to the “Louisiana trifecta” of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

It is all too easy to blame our excess weight on our world-renowned cuisine, but other superimposed factors are at play. Old photographs of various group meetings and street scenes such as folks walking on Canal Street document slim or at least normal weight New Orleanians through the 1960s. Collective waistlines begin to expand in the ’70s, and we were a fat city by ’80.

So what happened? Folks back in our pre-obesity era ate the same traditional dishes we cherish today. Perhaps love for good food in Louisiana over the centuries primed our collective genes in some way that makes us no match for fast foods chemically programmed like crack cocaine. It is like a computer virus invaded the satiety center of our brains making fast food not a novelty, but a dependency bordering on addiction.

The enemies are not our trademark foods, like boiled crawfish, shrimp remoulade, debris poor boys and oysters on the half-shell. The culprit is more a shift in non-Louisiana food that we consume and how we eat it. We have been taken hostage by substitute foods that come in paper wrappers and cardboard boxes cramped with excessive and addictive amounts of sugars, salt and fat. Granted, a popular fast-food fried chicken franchise did spawn locally, but most fast food we consume has no connection to our local delicacies.      
So how to combat this nationwide epidemic? Most health care professionals recommend food intake of 2,000 and 2,500 calories for the normal adult depending on gender and physical activity level. A life of longevity and health is best anchored in food and drink moderation along with physical activity. It is about maintaining balance and doesn’t exclude an occasional pig-out.

New Orleans has come together as a city and community with fresh initiatives and balanced strategies to fight our growing obesity epidemic. There can be moderation even in excess. Reverend Ray Cannata, featured in a WYES documentary, became locally famous for eating in 747 different New Orleans area restaurants before he stopped keeping count. Although he ate out most nights, Cannata cut out soft drinks and gave up his car to increase his activity levels.

In addition to promoting eating and exercising in moderation, most physicians recommend incorporating as much fresh produce and meat as possible into the daily diet. Several medical studies have linked community obesity to a lack of fresh food access. A champion of fresh food in our city is our beloved “Okra Man,” Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson, the city’s roving produce vendor who followed his father’s tradition of traveling around the neighborhoods selling fresh vegetables. Adults come running to that memorable baritone voice over his PA like kids chasing the ice cream truck. “I got okra and collards. I got apples and bananas.”

Following Mr. Okra’s lead, the city of New Orleans and neighborhood community groups developed initiatives to expand fresh food access. Two years ago Mayor Mitch Landrieu launched the New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative to expand access to healthy food at affordable prices, provide quality employment opportunities and serve as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.

We have the Circle Food Market coming back to the 7th Ward and a new Whole Foods Market planned for the old Schwegmann’s location at Broad and Bienville streets. The Crescent City has expanded community-supported agriculture in recent years. The Hollygrove Market and Farm is a local community garden and produce market located at 8301 Olive St., and it’s open Tuesdays through Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. There are other city markets: Tuesdays Uptown at 200 Broadway Ave. and the river; Thursdays at 3700 Orleans Ave. and the bayou in Mid-City; and the granddaddy of them all, Saturdays at Magazine and Girod streets (CrescentCityFarmersMarket.org).

Remember that the healthiest of foods are those messed with the least, and that the best life is a balanced life. Enjoy nights out with friends, but park the car for the weekend and go shank’s mare. Ride your bike to Jazz Fest and have a guilt-free stuffing of crawfish bread and beer. Bottom line: leave the junk food and both sweetened and unsweetened soft drinks in the store or fast food “crack house” to rot on the shelf.

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