Monday, March 1, 2010

Obesity – Could It Be Better Managed with Manners?

March is National Nutrition Month and we thought we would “weigh in” (no pun intended) on the great weight debate and how paying attention to a few good manners can help the obesity epidemic.

Last week, the Obama administration called for a “re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act…to improve the health and nutrition of our nation’s children”. This statement was made in the same week that a Nightline “Face Off” special was devoted to the thin vs. fat debate. In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, basically made a direct correlation between the figurative health of our country and the literal health of our children stating that our children and grandchildren will bear the burden of needing to be the healthiest generation of children in our nation’s history. With childhood obesity at an all time high, and statistics across the board reminding us of the incredible challenge ahead, the pressure of needing to be even more healthy is a very big pill to swallow and requires addressing at every angle. Our children’s futures are depending on it!

So perhaps it is time for our nation’s leaders to consider this epidemic from a different point of view, one that is taken from the viewpoint of manners. As an etiquette instructor working closely with children and a parent who grew up in a household where unsalted health food potato chips were considered a treat, I feel I have the necessary personal experience to address this subject. I understand the health issue and I also know the positive influence a few good manners can make! Let's take a closer look at exactly how some very basic principles of comportment during mealtime can be used to combat obesity.

1. Focus on Posture. One of the biggest issues at the table is the issue of slouching while eating. A simple focus on good posture and sitting up straight will automatically create a more elongated figure and a more confident presence. Good posture at the table not only adds inches to your frame, but it also makes it much easier to digest your food. Sitting up straight in a chair forces you to hold in your stomach and keep your shoulders back and it is hard work! Trust me, when you sit correctly in this position you will not want to overeat.

2. Begin Dressing for Dinner. Or breakfast or lunch for that matter. Back in the day, adults and children dressed before coming to the table. They made sure they were properly groomed and coiffed. Men wore suits and women elegant house dresses. Girls wore knee-length dresses with matching sweater sets and boys wore slacks with button downs and smart sweaters. Why has it become acceptable to be so casually dressed at the table? Perhaps if we slip out of our sweatsuits and into some Spanx under an elegant dress, we might eat less! It just makes sense that when you take the time to present yourself properly at the table, you are more likely to eat with equal poise.

3. Create Atmosphere. When dining at home, take the time to create atmosphere. Set a nice table, break out the good china, light some candles, put on some nice mood music. This helps set the tone for the entire dining experience. Dining together is meant to be pleasurable and civilized. This is what separates us from the barbarians. With every detail carefully put into place, it would be considered disrespectful to just mow through your meal. Instead, you will want to relax and savor each bite and might even be persuaded to eat a little less and enjoy a little more.

4. Concentrate on Conversation. Long before the invention of iPhones and Blackberries, attendees at the table were required to look one another in the eye and make pleasant face-to-face conversation. Today, we must make a conscious effort to put away our technological devices in order to practice our conversation skills. In actuality, our main purpose at the table is to make fabulous repartee, not gorge ourselves with food. Think about it, the more conversation you make, the less you are able to eat!

5. Dine with Decorum. First, whether practicing the Continental or American style of eating, utilizing a fork as well as a knife not only looks better, but prevents us from shoveling food into our mouths. Both styles of eating begin with the fork tines facing down which allows for only so much food to be placed on the fork. I often say that if you are trying to manage your weight, practice the American style of eating which requires the extra step of switching hands to bring the food to your mouth with the fork tines facing up. Second, eating slowly and allowing for sufficient rest time between courses automatically sends certain signals to the brain that we are getting full. Third, if you approach food like a work of art concentrating on the imaginative colors and tastes, it is likely you will eat it with more discrimination.

6. Eating Right is Good Etiquette. Being open to eating all kinds of fruits and vegetables, in addition to meats and starches, makes you appear cultured as well as conscientious. Break out of your usual patterns, expose yourself and your families to different foods of various ethnicities. Try different diets such as vegan or raw food. By experimenting with many food selections you become more satisfied and perhaps less inclined to over indulge. Secondly, to encourage smaller portions at mealtime, try a little trick used by the catering industry and set the table with smaller plates. Smaller plates call for smaller portions which provide a more dainty appearance and that is good etiquette.

7. Show Some Restraint. In the past, many of us were taught to finish everything on our plate and wound up stuffing ourselves until we were sick to our stomach. Nowadays, it seems that those who are able to leave a little left over on their plate actually appear to be more control. They have the ability to show self-restraint by listening to their bodies when they indicate they are full. Polite dining actually encourages leaving a small portion of food on the plate. This helps to give the appearance that one can be satisfied without being gluttonous.

8. Be a Conscientious Host. As a gracious and conscientious host, it is your duty to make smart choices and be an educator. Choose to serve water (or lowfat milk for younger children) at the table rather than juice or soda. Offer whole wheat rolls with some olive oil for dipping rather than butter. Double check the ingredients of the foods you will be serving before preparing a meal to look for items with high fiber and low fat. Realize that you can make an absolutely delicious meal from a Cooking Light recipe as well as a recipe from Paula Dean (sorry Paula)!

If we can educate our young people on the value of instilling these principles of dining manners and eating right at a very young age then perhaps we can help make a dent in this "losing" (again, no pun intended) battle.

For more factual and statistical information on healthy eating and achieving a healthy weight, consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at For more information on the above-referenced Huffington Post article or Nightline segment, please see the following:

Just recently discovered this new documentary called "What's On Your Plate?" by Catherine Gund It uncovers the link between a healthy planet, healthy food and healthy bodies.

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