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An unhealthy fear of fatty foods

By now all of the Twinkies, Ho Hos and other Hostess baked goods have been stripped from grocery store shelves — and countless tributes paid via Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts.

After more than 80 years in business, Hostess declared it was going under last week, dropping off the last of its Wonder Bread and Zingers deliveries, possibly ending jobs for more than 18,000 people, and marking yet another sad demise of a venerable American business institution.

Now, in a perhaps ill-fated 11th-hour round of negotiations with its workers, Hostess is struggling to escape the Great Recession sandpit, or get bought out. Yet this octogenarian snack king is really just the victim of another movement sweeping the country over the past couple decades: "low-fat" and "health food" trends, and the current government-sponsored anti-obesity campaign.

Among other evolutionary changes, Hostess-style chocolate and crème desserts are being replaced by a seemingly endless variety of gluey cereal bars with nearly as much sugar — but containing the word "fiber" on the label.

Funny how Americans weighed less when it was still OK to eat a Twinkie. In the same past couple decades, the number of overweight Americans has risen to 2 in 3. Dieting is rampant, yet numerous studies have shown that dieting in the long run frequently leads to overall weight gain.

To me, it's just this obsession with weight — instead of balanced living — that is fueling the decline of yet another little bit of joy on the planet: the unrepentant $1 snack dessert. Consider the Zen of the moment when you take a bite, that taste of something so simple yet decadent, Godiva for the everyman, and, for many, the savory hint of childhood and innocence. Can that small pleasure be had any longer without fear of diet-busting self-loathing?

One unintended consequence of anti-obesity campaigns (which are filtering into our schools) is clear, according to health experts: an increasingly all-consuming fear of gaining weight and an unhealthy relationship with food. "Kids are at all different stages. Some are stick figures, some are not," says Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt Health System. "It's not OK to just tell kids at that age not to eat fat, or to eat only low-fat. Fat is a normal part of the diet."

I've seen that fear in my own family. At age 8, my daughter swore off sweets. At 10, though thin, she kids around with her friends about how to best burn calories. And they are hardly alone. A whopping "81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat," according to studies cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

Healthy eating is fine, but extremism in any form is often destructive. I've instead tried to emphasize the message of balance vs. self-denial. As I told her, "One of the joys of childhood is eating a cookie." She has listened, and dessert is now welcome in our home again.

And the Ho Ho, in particular, has been a savior of sorts. The Twinkie didn't quite translate to adulthood for me: that sticky, sweet cellulous sponge cake I once thought would be the last survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Ah, but the delicate Ho Ho: not too much chocolate. Not too much crème. No choco-gummy residue like a Little Debbie's Cupcake. Just a swish of sugary white filling and the snap of that thin chocolate coating that collapsed in your mouth at the end of each bite.

When I heard the news, I asked my husband to check the shelves at Target. No luck, of course. And I'm not one to scour out-of-the way drugstore shelves in search of an out-of-date, overlooked box. I can only hope that, if Hostess does go down for good, some savvy entrepreneur will indeed bring back the beloved brands — recognizing that people don't just want to consume these culinary vestiges of Americana, they want to do so with love.

I can still remember the taste of my last Ho Ho. That's partly because I unknowingly bought my last box just a couple weeks ago. I put one in each of my children's schools lunches, and I know they have at least gotten to know a bit of the "happy" in my own childhood.

Luckily, I ate the rest myself.

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a lecturer in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and the mother of two. Her email is jcscribe@yahoo.com.

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