The Anthropology of Gluttony
The current Johns Hopkins magazine examines the seven deadly sins. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz (who has written a fair amount about food--including Sweetness and Power and Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom) tackles Gluttony in a well-reasoned essay:
The ubiquity of the food itself is an important element in how much of it we eat, and we have it available now in theaters, next to supermarket checkout counters, cluttering up the lobbies of symphony halls, in laundromats, gymnasia, and (McDonalds, no less) in our hospitals. (Shhh — not yet in our cemeteries.)
I think that we Americans, in particular, are led down the path by the much-touted insistence that sophisticated people should be able to do many things at once. How often are we told by people who want to sell us things that busy folks like us have no time, and must learn to multitask? Chronically subject to low-key distraction by the other things we're doing, we may fail to notice what (or how much) we're eating. Clever devices, like plastic cup holders in automobiles, make it convenient to consume almost uninterruptedly. Takeout and TV dinners, energy bars, and soft drinks everywhere encourage and enable us to eat continuously. Fortunately for the food producers, the eating that makes us sophisticated also makes the GDP rise. The nag factor — an American crotchet ensuring that children get to eat what they want, whenever they want it (nurturing their individuality, perhaps?) — also comes into play.
The composition of the foods we are offered is an element in how much we eat — featuring as they do sweet and fat tastes — but also, of course, in how fat we're getting. Sweeteners and fats have not only overtaken but surpassed complex carbohydrates — the carbs we briefly loved to hate — in everyday meals. That movement from carbs to fat and sweet has been going on at least since World War I.