"The signs are all around," says Kelly Brownell grimly.

Let me give you one example, he says: Within a 15-minute drive of his house there are about 25 fast-food restaurants -- and just about the same number of places peddling diet programs.


"Another example is the cover of a lot of women's magazines," he continues. "You see some very luscious high-calorie dish -- and then the lead story is likely to be some kind of diet article."

Manufacturers are even producing a "lite" dog food now, he says -- as well as ice cream for canines.


Can you believe this?

Dr. Brownell, co-director of the Obesity Research Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, doesn't actually say, "Can you believe this?" but it's there in his voice, in his every sentence.

It's as if he were saying, Can you believe the way our society operates? Can you believe the crazy way people act? Can you believe how often they do things like eating three jelly doughnuts for breakfast while putting Sweet and Low in their coffee? Can you believe that the nation that buys Stairmaster also eats almost 20 pounds of candy per capita each year? Can you believe that the only non-fiction category that outsells diet books at Greetings & Readings is cookbooks? Can you believe how nutty we are about nurturing ourselves?

Can you believe how we've gone bananas over the basics of it?

Can you believe how ambivalent and inconsistent and let's face it, just plain confused we can be over that simplest and most ordinary of things, food?

It's all easier to believe if you just remember how tremendously important food is to human beings, says Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. Food may be everyday stuff, but the weirdness we practicein its name becomes less startling when we remember how loaded down it is with symbolic and cultural and erotic baggage. (Dr. Mintz's book "Sweetness and Power," a trenchant treatise about sugar and its particular set of baggage, has most recently been published in Italian.)

Food isn't just food, then; it's also tied up with sex and sin and social class and all kinds of other goodies that have nothing in common with carbohydrates, proteins and fats, but which we as a society have chosen to see as intimately associated with them.

Bottled water, for example, is nothing more than good old H2O, )) with bubbles or without -- but consumers see it as an indicator of a healthy lifestyle, of a certain kind of knowledgeableness, of, ultimately, social standing. (Porky proles don't pour Perrier, do they? And if they did, would you?)


Adding to the confusion generated by this load of symbolic baggage is the fact that our ideas about food are changing -- ideas about what foods are healthy, about how our bodies should look, about what constitutes a meal, and even about what tastes good and what doesn't. The new ideas are often in conflict with old ideas -- and they're also sometimes in conflict with each other.

Then the whole self-contradictory brew is glamorized and beamed back at us bigger than life -- actually usually thinner than life -- from TV screens and magazine pages, confirming and intensifying the confusion we have about what we eat and what we don't eat, what we should eat and what we shouldn't.

So is it any wonder the Great American Food Follies look like a long-playing hit?

THE FIRST ACT IS CALLED "WHAT IS This Thing Called Oat Bran," and it's all about the heightened concern in recent years over the healthiness of food.

Periodically Americans get caught up in worries about the healthiness of their food -- at the end of the last century such concerns resulted in the creation of cornflakes and graham crackers -- and this seems to be one of those periods.

Which is fine and dandy, except that this heightened concern for health runs headfirst into several roadblocks on the way to rational execution. The first roadblock is that we don't really know for sure just what is healthy and what isn't. That is, we think we're sure -- until some new report comes out saying the exact opposite.


Thus all cholesterol was bad for you -- until the "good" cholesterol of HDLs was discovered. And protein was what you needed more of -- until complex carbohydrates came into fashion. And an apple a day kept the doctor away -- until Alar

was exposed.

The second roadblock is that most Americans have a pronounced preference for foods that are both fatty and sweet -- although such foods, dense with calorie-laden sugars and artery-clogging fats, are now believed to be bad for you. But we love them anyway, probably because such foods have long been seen as being "the epitome of the good life," says Hopkins' Dr. Mintz; they are symbols of having made it up the social ladder. (They're not called "rich" foods for nothing.) And although these meanings may be waning in our affluent society, they are still far from extinct -- which makes it doubly hard to give up fried dough in favor of cruciferous veggies.

So even the simple act of trying to eat a healthy diet isn't as simple as it sounds, and although some people have managed to make the switch from "rich" foods to "healthy" ones, most of us are still straddling the bridge between the two. And that's one reason some of us eat salad for lunch -- and a Dove bar for dessert.

THE SECOND ACT OF THE FOOD FOLlies is called "Food in the Fast Lane," and to explain it, let's look at a course Dr. Mintz was teaching on food about a year ago.

For this course, Dr. Mintz had his students keep one-day food diaries of what they ate and what they thought about eating during a 24-hour period. The results, Dr. Mintz says, were fascinating.


What they showed was "complete alienation from food as a social thing": For his students, eating was something done on the run, without planning or forethought, by oneself and on impulse, often out of a box or from a machine.

It was everything that the image of American eating -- a Norman Rockwell family celebrating and cementing their unity with a shared and planned meal -- was not. It was solitary, random and, in the opinion of Dr. Mintz, whose father was a cook, just plain depressing.

"There is a devaluation of eating" in this kind of behavior, says Warren Belasco, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but he notes that such devaluation has been an element in American culture "from way back."

He mentions how the travel journals kept by Charles Dickens when he visited this country in the last century described Americans in train stations shoving food down their throats in typical haste. "There's always been a kind of emphasis on fast food in America -- though it wasn't [always] called fast food," says Dr. Belasco, author of "Appetite for Change," a book about the counterculture and the food industry.

One result of this emphasis on speedy foods, he explains, is that Americans tend to like food that can be prepared and eaten quickly, which tends to mean -- guess what? -- fried foods and sweet foods.

Another result is that with every passing year the easy availability of food, its sometimes terrible ubiquity, increases. Fast fixes of food are now available 24 hours a day almost everywhere -- even in gyms, Dr. Mintz notes. So it's not surprising that we are turning into what Dr. Mintz calls "a feeding or grazing society" -- a society in which great numbers of people eat all day long.


Which is not necessarily bad, except for one or two things. One of which is that we get fat.

"OUR TECHNOLOGY HAS OUTPACED our bodies," says Dr. Brownell, introducing Act 3 of the Food Follies: "Evolution's No Solution."

"We can get a lot of calories in high-calorie, high-fat foods that the body is not prepared to cope with," Dr. Brownell continues, because human bodies evolved to deal with hunting and gathering, not with 7-Elevens and Mickey D's on every corner.

"Our bodies are animal bodies. They were designed to swim rivers, run across plains and climb trees in order to get food," says Baltimore dietitian Colleen Pierre, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. But the notion of the good life in America is to lie around and take it easy, Ms. Pierre continues -- and that kind of good life is not so good for our bodies.

"You take an animal body that was designed to move, and you put it in a society that says not to move, and then you subject it to all this advertising and the most abundant food supply in the world," she says -- and you inevitably end up with a nation of pork chops.

Make that a nation of pork chops on a diet. In part that's because a large element of the American concern for health is the desire to keep weight down: A slender body is believed to be a healthier body than a plump or fat one.


But health's not the whole story behind dieting: There's another twist to being slim. During the last century's fad for health, dieting was common, says Cornell historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, but it was different from today's practices: It was done by men as well as women, and its primary objective was health.

Now, though, dieting is done chiefly by women, and although recently women have been motivated by a concern for health, their chief reason for dieting is still aesthetic. They want to be thin because that's what they think looks good.

"You don't have to look further than Madison Avenue" in accounting for these ideas about a desirable appearance, says John LaRosa, director of research at Marketdata Enterprises, a New York state market research firm that has tracked the diet industry. "Women are bombarded with images of young, slim role models" on every side, from television and billboards, magazines and movies.

But this image of slender youth is neither a realistic one nor, in many cases, even a healthy one. Mr. LaRosa says that while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finds only 23.9 percent of American women fit the definition of obesity by being 20 percent or more over their ideal body weight, his sources in the diet industry tell him the number who perceive themselves as being overweight is more than double that.

"There's a real perception there that people are overweight even though they may not be," he concludes.

Certainly there's money to be made by pushing that perception: $35.8 billion was spent on weight-loss products of all kinds in 1990, Marketdata estimates, and Mr. LaRosa projects $50.7 billion will be spent per year by 1995. Much of that is money thrown away, since reports say more than 90 percent of those who diet put back what they've lost -- usually plus some. Look at Oprah. Look at Liz.


The reason is simple, according to Ms. Pierre. The fashionably super-lean body is really appropriate for only a very few people, she says, explaining that only 10 percent of Americans "can be that thin and eat normally. Most people have to really, really struggle to keep their weight that low, and when you really starve, starving produces binge eating." And the result of binge eating is weight gain.

"So the consequence of this focus [on thinness] is we're getting fatter," Ms. Pierre concludes. "People who would have maintained a normal weight if they'd never dieted put on 5 pounds a year and keep on getting fatter and fatter."

That's Catch 22 of the Great American Food Follies: The harder you diet, the fatter you get.

BUT NOBODY WANTS TO BE-lieve that. Instead they want to believe that the newest diet book, or the latest medically supervised fast, or joining the health spa Cher belongs to will somehow, some way, turn them into clones of the attenuated idols they see on television, in movies and magazine ads. Which gives us Act 4 of the Food Follies: "The Unbearable Being of Lightness."

The hold this ideal of thinness has on the public mind is so strong that women regularly confess to envying anorexic girls who starve themselves in pursuit of the ideal of slenderness, says Cornell's Dr. Brumberg, the author of "Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa."

Other people, again mostly women, have died from complications caused by liquid diets and in a few instances following liposuction, the surgical removal of fat.


A thin figure is to die for, it seems. Thin is that in.

Why it's in, though, is more problematic.

Arnold Andersen's theory is that the in-ness of thinness represents a continuing "dialectic between social classes." Dr. Andersen, director of the Eating and Weight Disorders Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, says, "The norms for upper class and lower class keep reversing each other. . . . When dark skin from laboring outside was lower class, the upper class was white as chalk," but when tanned skin became associated with luxury trips to the Riviera and Caribbean, it became upper class.

Similarly, fatness is now associated with being lower class, while once it was the enviable sign of wealth and prosperity. And it's the upper classes, those who are best able to afford a rich diet, who are now most likely to be eating a low-fat peasant cuisine. It's also the more affluent and educated among us who are most likely to be on a diet -- and to develop eating disorders.

Another theory about the vogue for thinness relates it to rapid social change, says Dr. Brumberg. In both the '20s and the '60s, as rapid social change occurred, it was accompanied by "cultural messages about reducing the body," she writes.

It's as though when people lose control of what's happening out there, they feel the need to increase control of what's happening in here, to their own bodies. Many writers about eating disorders mention the importance of a sense of control to those who suffer from these conditions, and perhaps these disorders are merely a logical extension of society's preoccupations: "Eating disorders are in a sense part of the modern mentality," Dr. Brumberg says.


It may also be that to the modern mentality, eating disorders represent a search for perfection that earlier epochs interpreted in spiritual terms: Anorexics may be our secular saints. The mode of suffering they have chosen for themselves recalls the women saints of the Catholic pantheon, notes Steven L. Kaplan, professor of European history at Cornell University and editor of the journal Food and Food Ways, since many of those women also starved themselves as a way of expressing their saintliness.

Certainly not only anorexics but even garden-variety dieters use the language of sin and redemption to talk about food: They are "bad" when they eat, "good" when they don't; desserts are "sinful," while eating oatmeal is "the right thing to do."

"This society is a society with a very long tradition of viewing the world as consisting of good and evil," says Hopkins' Dr. Mintz. "This is a sin-ridden society and has been ever since they dipped witches."

So the same good-and-bad thinking we once applied to morality we now apply to eating. And in the absence of witches to revile, it seems we now have fat people.

BUT THERE'S HOPE FOR THEheavyweights among us -- maybe because more of us are becoming heavyweights ourselves. People tend to gain weight with age, and the population as a whole is aging -- and therefore gaining weight.

Look at the baby boom, that enormous bulge in the population whose massive passing through adolescence in the '60s and '70s probably contributed to the vogue for adolescent slimness in the first place. The oldest of the boomers are beginning to hit the middle-age-spread years of fortysomething, and it's possible that as more and more of this group hits the age of expansion the societal ideal will expand, too.


Perhaps it already has: A recent Gallup Poll found that 71 percent of women and 54 percent of men believe American society places too much emphasis on being thin. And backing them up are the recently released "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" issued by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

These guidelines extend the upper limits of weight for people over 35 by about 10 pounds over old guidelines. The weight ranges for people under 35 are also slightly more generous than those in previous guidelines.

But -- and it's a big but -- although the guidelines may allow more fat on the person, they don't allow more fat on the plate: Keep your fat calories at 30 percent or less of your total caloric intake, the guidelines warn, use salt and sugar in moderation, eat lots of fruits, grains and veggies.

Which suggests that although the ideal of thinness may be fading somewhat, the ideal of health is still booming along. And to many people this means that a conscientious dinner of broiled fish will still be followed by a guilty midnight fix of Haagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip.

But there are indicators that the days of this feast-or-famine approach to healthy eating may be numbered. For one thing, Americans are willing to eat more kinds of food than they used to, and more kinds of food are available. Ethnic cuisines such as Indian and Japanese and Mexican, which few Americans ate 20 years ago, are now easily available -- and often offer healthier but still enjoyablealternatives to the basic American staples.

These new food varieties make it easier to move away from the belief that if it's good for you it must taste like sawdust. So does the growing rapprochement between gourmet chefs and nutritionists, who used to be divided into two camps that Julia Child, longtime champion of French cooking, has described charitably as "warring."


Thus in 1985 the influential Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., which trains those who want to become professional chefs, expanded its nutrition instruction from classroom theory into kitchen practice: The school initiated a full-fledged course in which students actually prepare and present nutritious but tasty meals in a restaurant setting. And last year the school opened a new building with an in-house restaurant to practice the new teaching.

On the same track, last summer a magazine named Eating Well was launched with the objective of showing that food can be both good for you and good to eat. "I don't think there's any law of nature that says food that's healthful has to taste boring," says its editor, Barry Estabrook, adding that reader response to this radical idea has been "tremendously gratifying." The magazine is expected to exceed by a considerable margin the paid circulation of 300,000 predicted for the March-April issue.

Still, despite these signs, "It's difficult to estimate how successful the health-bearers will be in changing the food orientation of masses of Americans," says Hopkins' Dr. Mintz. It may be that the influence of those who insist on combining health and taste will never extend to the mainstream of American eating habits. It may be that the only adaptations of ethnic cuisines that actually make it into American hearts and homes are the sweet and fatty ones. It may be that 20 years from now Americans will be just as confused about what to eat and what not to eat as they are now.

So it may be that the best name for the final act of the Great American Food Follies is no name at all, but simply "TBA -- To Be Announced."