Peer Pressure to Eat Badly?

The Huffington Post published a piece last week on presidential candidates and their highly-publicized stops at food joints.

Apparently, the candidates feel pressured by the public to “do as the Romans do” and eat the local cuisines of the destinations they visit while campaigning.  Their advisors encourage them to publicize these stops and make them a part of their image as candidates.

Romney Obama Eating

Eat our pork chops and ice cream. But stay fit. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

This isn’t the first article I’ve seen on the importance of food to presidential candidates.  John Kerry took heat for ordering Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak at Philadelphia’s famous Pat’s King of Steaks.  (Small point, it would seem, but locals choose Cheez Whiz 9 times out of 10.  Pat’s didn’t even have Swiss.)  Gerald Ford, looking to appeal to Latino voters, famously tried eating a tamale in San Antonio–without removing the husk.   During the 2008 primaries, I recall reading how Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani struggled to eat the many–and often unhealthy–foods offered to them while campaigning, without packing on too many pounds.

Now Obama and Romney face similar concerns.  Obama took heat last election cycle for reportedly asking Iowans, “anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they’re charging for arugula?” (This seemed to alienate him from working class voters.)  Romney’s religion, and its ban on coffee (widely misbelieved to be ban on all caffeinated beverages, including sodas), raises red flags for him in the food world as well.

But the question remains why we care.  Obviously, people feel more comfortable with people like themselves.  It’s no surprise that beer drinkers who live off burgers and pizza may look at you funny if you dine on arugula.  Or that wine drinkers who eat salads and fancy cheeses may think you’re not like them if you live off beer and deep-fat fried foods.

And this doesn’t go only for foods.  Romney, famously wanting NASCAR fans to think he’s like them, awkwardly asserted that several of his friends own NASCAR teams.  Wanting to impress Detroit auto workers that he drives American cars, he said his wife drives a Cadillac–two of them, in fact.  George H. W. Bush was famously surprised by supermarket scanners–he apparently hadn’t shopped for himself since they were invented.  His opponent, Michael Dukakis, tried to appear stronger on national defense by appearing in a tank, but looked so out of place the stunt backfired.

But food presents unique issues for candidates.  There’s pressure not only to eat what the people eat at any campaign stop, but also to keep weight within control.  Bill Clinton took endless heat for his own dietary habits and sometime portliness.  (True, this didn’t seem to hurt his electoral results, but it couldn’t have been fun for him.)  Every time I hear Chris Christie’s name in connection with a possible presidential run, someone says he can’t run because the country won’t elect someone his size.

And yet people don’t like it if candidates don’t eat what they’re “supposed to eat” at campaign stops.

Why am I writing about this on this blog?  Well, because the same thing happens to people aren’t political candidates.  I’ve ordered a salad instead of fries, a tuna melt instead of a burger, fruit instead of potato chips, and never heard the end of it.  I’ve refused dessert and sustained a five minute barrage of discouragement.  Eaten lightly and taken flak.

And I understand why.  Part of it’s the old rule of, if someone offers you brownies they made, you take one.  Part of it’s that the other people know they “should” also take the salad instead of fries, and by refusing the fries you’re calling this to their attention, shoving it in their faces.  By taking the healthier option, you’re indirectly telling them, or reminding them, that they’re eating badly.  (This may sound immature of them, but I know that when I throw back a few drinks I’m more comfortable, for good reason or no, if all my dinner companions are doing the same.  Maybe it’s human nature.)

So it’s a political issue, even if on a very small scale, whether you’re a politician or not.  If you’re dining with others, it’ll never be simply an issue of what you put in your body; it’s one of how you’re making other people feel.

How to work around it?  Well, the political candidates probably have the right idea.  When you’re not with others, eat as you want to eat.  When you are, you can still eat a lot of what you want to eat, but pay attention to your surroundings.  Sometimes it makes a lot more sense to just order the dessert.  Take the fries.  Eat the burger.  Sometimes it’s good to do these things, whatever your diet may be, just to give yourself a treat or a break, a release valve of sorts.  But in any event it can eliminate the negativity that can come from eating a diet different from everyone else.

Of course, the politicians, with their eyes ever on public opinion, and under far greater public pressure, take more extreme steps, and tricks that probably aren’t worth putting over on your family and friends during normal lifetime circumstances.  The Huffington Post article seems to suggest that candidates will grab food and carry it with them, only to not eat it or to let a campaign staffer do so.  And when they do eat the type of food the locals love, they are sure to make a big scene of it so that the people see it and the newspapers report on it.

But unless you’re constantly dining with others, or appealing to large, fickle audiences, you shouldn’t have to resort to these tactics of showboating and deception.  Almost whoever you are, you have it easier than the candidates do.  You don’t spend every day in a different town, around different people, with their different foods.  You may upset people if you make certain food choices, and take a consonant amount of grief, but it won’t be posted on the Internet or played over and over on the cable news reels.

In any event, it’s interesting to see politicians dealing with what those of us who follow particular diets deal with every day.  There’s a double standard where people judge us for eating healthy foods, but also judge us for gaining weight.  Yet another reason why weight loss was never easy.  The good news is, your friends are your friends.  And you don’t need to win their votes.

Do you ever struggle with keeping a certain diet when the people around you don’t?

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3 Responses to Peer Pressure to Eat Badly?

  1. All I can say is “Story of my life”.

  2. Cynthia says:

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