At the "Food Museum"

 

Recalling her years as an internist in the Waterbury area, Dr. Eina Fishman tells me, “I gave my patients great advice that I never took myself.”

In those days, she saw firsthand the dramatic change for the worse in the American diet and its health consequences. She saw this in the seriously overweight patients whose appetites led to ailments such as type 2 diabetes—the form of the disease that can lead to blindness, kidney failure and other calamities. Worse, for the first time children were developing this level of the disease. And here was Fishman, a medical adviser, herself 100 pounds overweight.

She thought nothing in those days of knocking down a pound of pasta for dinner, or a pizza piled with fatty meats, as well as the oversized sodas that came with them and the creamy desserts that followed. She could pack it away, and during office hours, she could cover it all up with a physician’s white coat in extra-large.

As Fishman’s practice, and girth, grew, however, her self-esteem dwindled. Every day at the office she saw the consequences of what she was doing to herself— evidence of diseased livers, hearts and kidneys. The diplomas on her wall from NYU, UCLA and UConn verified her expertise but provided no immunization for a doctor who ignored so much of what she had learned.

“I was on medication for high blood pressure and asthma,” she says. “I didn’t do things for my kids because I was embarrassed about my weight.”

She tried situational dieting—for example, to fit into a dress to attend a wedding. “I’d lose 20 pounds, and then gain 30 back,” she says.

Then came the day everything changed. She went to the hospital to visit one of her four children, a daughter who had developed a serious stomach disorder.

“I could hardly walk to the stairs,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘How will I take care of my child?’ When I saw my daughter that day, she told me, ‘I won’t let my disease control me.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have the same attitude.’ I really wanted to be around to help. I needed to change.

“What I learned was that this wasn’t really about losing weight. It was about taking care of myself. So I stopped beating myself up. I realized Weight Watchers was giving me the tools.”

So was her family. “My son was taking martial arts,” she explains. “I started walking during the time he was in class, and lost 50 pounds. I asked him if I could join the group. I used to call myself ‘the fat old lady’ in the class. I figured that if a 7-year-old could do it, then I could do it.”

Nowadays, you’ll find her running four miles every day in her Cheshire neighborhood. If invited for dinner (“I’m not a great cook,” she says), you won’t be served red meat or processed foods or even egg yolks. (She does admit, however, to making a pretty decent eggplant Parmesan.)

In her work over the last few years, she has tried to spread the healthy gospel—an effort that has contributed to one of the most ambitious public health exhibits ever in our state.

She is chief medical director for the Connecticut division of Anthem Blue Cross, and it is in her and her employer’s interest to develop ways to lower health-care costs. She can do that, in part, by helping to educate the company’s clients and the public at large.

That’s why she was intrigued by a seminar she attended in 2010 at the Yale School of Medicine. One of the breakout sessions was run by Jeannette Ickovics, Ph. D., director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Program at the Yale School of Public Health. There was discussion on obesity, and the effects of the supersizing of the American diet. (One out of three health-care dollars is spent on the consequences of overeating, and serious weight issues have become epidemic—affecting more than one in five adults in every state.) After the seminar, the two health-care professionals talked about ways to bring about change.

The idea for an exhibit eventually emerged. Ickovics, with the help of many other health-care professionals and scientists, would produce it.

The Yale Peabody Museum was the natural spot—a destination for more than 150,000 visitors every year, many of them children bitten by the dinosaur bug. This is the time—before they develop symptoms—for them to see how dangerous the sedentary and self-indulgent life can be.

Fundraisers for the exhibit got an unusual response: Not a single potential corporate donor that was solicited declined. Everybody understood the stakes. Anthem Blue Cross was asked for $10,000. Astonishingly, it gave $75,000. Fishman had pushed for the extra money because she wanted to inspire others to do what she had done.

What would the exhibit be called? At first ideas were tossed around that included the words “obesity” and “epidemic.” “But,” as Ickovics told me, “who would come to that?” They needed a title that would reflect the entertainment value of the exhibit (it’s almost entirely interactive), but would also accommodate the serious message the exhibit would deliver.

So, on Feb. 11, Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating opened (it will run until Dec. 2). On the day before that opening, Fishman and I were treated to a preview.

I watched as she lingered at the first exhibit—showing what the average American consumes in the course of a typical year. She stared at the huge wheel of cheese, the tremendous amount of beef that dwarfed the fish, the 28-pound pile of french fries, and the soda that was more than twice the amount of milk products.

She could see her old self there. I couldn’t help but think that our bodies, though ingenious networks, are asked to do work for which they are not designed.

As Big Food demonstrates, early humans were obliged to forage for food—mostly grains, berries and vegetables—using energy to do so, as opposed to driving up to the carry-out window. Obesity was not an issue.

The way times and habits have changed is reflected in a quote displayed across a Peabody wall from chef Alice Waters, a leading proponent of organic cooking: “If we are what we eat, then Americans are cheap, fast and easy.” We are also susceptible to fad diets, showing that we know we shouldn’t eat to excess. Yet such diets usually fail.

Part of Fishman’s advice is “be kind to yourself.” She says, “We are our own worst enemies—we set goals we can’t achieve. So we say, ‘Why bother?’” Eating healthily, she says, does not require never eating something that’s bad for you. “I recommend taking baby steps. You shouldn’t be discouraged if you fail once in a while. We’re only human.”  

The journey through the exhibit will take you an hour and engage your senses. You’ll select doors to open while guessing which foods are better for you. You’ll play a game to discover what goes into, say, a doughnut. You’ll see what a normal heart looks like, and what happens to your organs when they’re abused. You’ll pick up healthy-cooking hints.

But before you go, you may want to drink one last strawberry milkshake (with its 25 spoonsful of sugar), for old time’s sake—because once you see what’s at the Peabody, you’ll never order one again.
 

At the "Food Museum"

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