Americans have their French fries, the British have their chips, Latin America has its papas fritas, and the French have their pommes-frites.
We love them. The potato, that most ubiquitous and perennially popular vegetable, is simply sliced into strips and deep fried. The fast food chains have managed to create total consistency so that fries at a McDonalds in Kalamazoo are identical with those offered in San Francisco, Atlanta, Moscow, or Madrid. They are the ultimate finger food, easily consumed behind the wheel, standing in the subway, or walking down the street. Some of us choose to add ketchup, or vinegar, or salsa, but they also taste great just as they are.
The civilized world has a giant addiction to the lowly tuber. It is hard to conceive of the centuries of eating that took place before potatoes were brought back to Europe from the New World and became a staple of every country's cuisine. What did the poor eat before potatoes made their appearance? Bread? Grains? Vegetables?
The advent of the potato changed our diets forever. It was easy to grow, plentiful, and cheap. The flavor was mild, marrying well with almost anything we chose to eat with it. Its texture changed depending upon how it was prepared. And how many ways we invented to cut it, cook it, and use it with every meal imaginable!
We baked it in its skin or roasted it in bite-sized pieces. We boiled it whole or mashed it into a creamy mush. We grated it and fried it for breakfast. We made soup of it and made it a key ingredient in stews. We made pancakes out of it. We sliced it, riced, it, and diced it. We put it into bread, rolled it into dough, and created America's favorite snack, the potato chip.
But the masterpiece that captured us all was deep frying it. Thick, country-style chips, shoe strings, curly and spicy -we loved them all: golden and crisp and perfect.
French fries now make up 25% of our children's intake of vegetables. Fast food nutritionists attempted to substitute healthier alternatives which were peremptorily dismissed by the majority of their customers. Fries remain the accompaniment of choice for all fast food: burgers, hot dogs, chicken, fish, roast beef, and ribs. We simply cannot get enough and never, ever, seem to tire of the little crunches of pleasure.
The innocuous potato, relatively low in calories and packing its fair share of vitamins and minerals, has been transformed into a culinary weapon of mass destruction. Disfigured by saturated fat into a caloric and artery-hardening horror, the French fry may be the deadliest peril we face on a daily basis.
Just a few orders of fries a week can increase our weight by ten pounds a year! Over a decade, that's a hundred pounds, over a lifetime, an awe-inspiring figure. With 60% of us overweight, half of that figure actually obese, we must look to our dietary intake to find the cause. As diabetes and other weight-related conditions mushroom, we know in our hearts that lifestyle changes are needed.
We go on diet regimens, drink liquid meals, fast, cut out sauces, and have our stomachs stapled. We join gyms, buy home exercise equipment, and follow along with television fitness shows. We blame the additives in our food, the hormones in our meat, and the fat in our salad dressings. We forsake the carbohydrates and sugars that our bodies can't process and opt for high fiber breads and low fat milk.
We refuse to believe, because we don't want to believe, that a seemingly harmless, crisp little addition to our meal can pack such a lethal wallop.
"But I just nibble a few," you wail, "And not every day." It's not the single meal intake that leads to an explosion. It's the cumulative total, day after day, year after year, that plants the time bomb within our system. It is the additive effect of repetitive use that eventually reaches critical mass and our physiology implodes.
Imagine, if you will, that not one fry was sold or eaten over the course of a year, anywhere in the United States. With just that change alone, the collective national weight loss could exceed a billion pounds!
The poor potato is ill-equipped to perform as a deadly weapon. It offers us enjoyment and variety and taste and health. But we have taken its honest goodness and distorted it into a slow killer. With every bend of our elbow to pop its sweet flavor into our mouths, we lay down fat on our hips, our stomachs, our arteries, and our pancreas.
Let's save ourselves and save the potato. Much as we hate to admit it, the French fry is something that has to go, before we do.
Virginia Bola is a licensed psychologist and an admitted diet fanatic. She specializes in therapeutic reframing and the effects of attitudes and motivation on individual goals. The author of The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a free ezine, The Worker's Edge, she recently published a psychologically-based weight control e-workbook, "Diet with an Attitude" which develops mental skills towards the goal of permanent weight control. She can be reached at http://www.DietWithAnAttitude.com. She provides support and guidance in use of the workbook through her regular blog, http://dietwithanattitude.blogspot.com