Boomers’ Diets Have Changed Over 50 Years

While the average American is one and a half inches taller than fifty years ago, we weigh about 25 pounds more. There are many culprits that have contributed to this increase, of course, most notably our intake of sugar, salt and fat, and penchant for less activity than people expended in the world we grew up in as young boomers.

Think back to 1966, and what your family was doing and eating. More meals were served in the home than eaten outside the home; a good portion of boomer fathers were involved in manufacturing jobs, which were far more physical than today’s desk assignments; kids spent much more time outside in physical activities; and consumption of sugary drinks and desserts, though much higher than they were in the decades before the War, were a fraction of what they are now. Food was more locally sourced, and by definition, fresher.

Enter the big food companies. Since the dawn of food commercialization, food manufacturers have been making claims that their products were good for you, or even better for you than the fresher counterparts. By the 1950s, many companies were funding studies that would suport their claims. Chief among them were studies by the vegetable oil industry. These studies concluded that polyunsaturated vegetable oils were actually better for the American diet than butter, lard and other saturated fats. Even the American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in the early 1960s. However, other studies as far back as the early 1950s pointed to the increase in cardiovascular disease and subsequent deaths that were occurring as proof the claims were false.

In 1900, cardiovascular disease was practically non-existent in the population. Fifty years later at the dawn of the Boomer Era, it was killing one third of Americans. Contradictory studies were showing that an increase in polyunsaturated fat consumption was contributing to higher cholesterol levels and clogged arteries, leading to an increase in heart disease not seen before the beginning of packaged foods and polyunsaturated fats.

In 1966, the American Medical Association sponsored and aired a program combating the health claims put forth by the vegetable oil industry, but for the most part, it fell on deaf ears. If your boomer family was anything like Mister Boomer’s, packaged foods and modern formulations represented progress and prosperity, so what could be wrong with that? Besides, they brought convenience and longer product shelf-life, and that allowed for more time to spend with the family.

As time went on and we boomers aged, we became addicted to the fast food that was a novelty for many of us in the 1950s and ’60s. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study states that the average American consumes nearly a ton of food per year; twenty-three pounds of that is pizza alone. And according to the Huffington Post, the average restaurant meal is now FOUR times larger than it was in the 1950s. In other words, we are eating much more than we did fifty years ago.

Like the lobster in the pot of water that is slowly reaching a boil, we were lulled into thinking everything was fine, even though information was available to tell us otherwise. In a time before the Internet, getting that information wasn’t as straightforward as it is today — and now we find ourselves in the realization that the Boomer Generation’s youngest members are over 50. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, blood pressure, and more, are increasing at an alarming rate. Is this our way of checking out early, so “Hope I die before get old” becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy? Or should we now grasp the freedom we said we always wanted to control our own destiny, and overcome another seemingly insurmountable challenge?

What are you doing to improve your diet and health these days, boomers?

A Cottage Industry Booms During Boomer Years

The mothers of boomers, being born in the 1920s and ’30s, had difficult teen years. Years of manual labor helping their parents around the house or farm were then made more difficult by the Great Depression of the 1930s, marked by food shortages and the lack of money to purchase it. This was then followed by World War II, and food rationing. During that series of nutritional challenges there wasn’t much reason for women of the middle and lower classes to construct diets focused on losing weight.

While a larger girth among wealthy men was considered a sign of success for decades, it was the opposite for their wives in the 1920s. Upper-crust women of that era furthered the idea of eating slimming foods, exercising and utilizing various technological contraptions in order to maintain or lose weight. The most notable of these predilections was the popularization of the salad lunch. A well-known phrase popularized in that time was, “You can never be too rich or too thin.”

By the time our mothers were married and began having children after the War, life was changing dramatically for American families. The move outward from cities to suburbs meant more time was spent in cars. Inventions like washing machines and dishwashers that had been first introduced over the preceding decades infiltrated the burgeoning middle class, who now had the space and the income to be able to afford them. As a result, women were spared a modicum of the drudgery that comprised housework for the previous American centuries. A bit more leisure time, the advance of daily television programming, less physical labor, less work outside the home, better medical care and less need for walking could have been factors in the weight our mothers began to gain. Naturally, marketers were at-the-ready to first plant the idea in women’s heads that they had a weight problem, then provided solutions to the problem with various products, one of which was a decidedly low-tech food: cottage cheese.

In a nutshell, cottage cheese is the result of milk being heated with an acid (like vinegar) until curds appear and whey is separated. This mixture is then drained, but not pressed, which keeps the curds intact and leaves a small portion of the whey in the product. If the cheese were pressed, it would become pot cheese, farmer cheese or queso blanco, depending on the type of milk being used and elements added. Since cottage cheese can be made on a stovetop, it is believed the term comes from people making cheese in their “cottages” using leftover milk after making butter. The first known use of the term was in 1848.

In the 1950s, dairy manufacturers such as Borden began advertising cottage cheese on TV as a great food for families. High in nutrition, it was soon brought to consumer’s attention that at only 80 to 100 calories per half cup serving, the product could be an aid in dieting. Cookbooks appeared by the dozens to help out the new generation of suburban moms, and they were overflowing with recipes for making and utilizing cottage cheese — as a substitute for other cheeses in recipes or eaten by itself with fruit, vegetables and the quintessential food of the era, Jell-O.

Restaurants, from fine dining establishments down to the local diner, placed cottage cheese on their menus, usually under a heading like, “Dieter’s Special.” While boomers ate cheeseburgers and fries, their moms were often treated to a plate of Iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese and canned fruit.

A typical cottage cheese plate
A typical 1950s and ’60s “Dieter’s Special” would consist of a scoop of cottage cheese with canned fruit (like peaches, pear or pineapple) sitting on a bed of Iceberg lettuce. Photo by Mister Boomer.

Mister Boomer’s mom was one of those women who, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, consumed a lot of cottage cheese for its dietary properties. She would often eat the product for lunch, and sometimes dinner, but it was always the same: a few spoons of the cheese straight from the store-bought container, topped with canned fruit cocktail. Occasionally she dressed it up with a few leaves of Iceberg lettuce, or switched out the fruit cocktail for canned peaches, pineapple or pears, but that was the extent of it.

Mister Boomer tried cottage cheese a few times as a youngster, and he was not impressed with its bland and slightly bitter taste. He would, every now and then when choices in the refrigerator were limited, partake of the product, but only with an equal or greater proportion of canned fruit. Once cottage cheese began being sold with pineapple already mixed into the container, that became his choice if he had to eat it.

A quick survey conducted this past week by Mister B of his boomer friends and co-workers revealed that the group was almost evenly split — around half recalled their moms eating vast quantities of the stuff, while others didn’t see it in their homes.

By the 1970s, cottage cheese lost some of its appeal. It has remained a staple on menus in many places to this day, and can still be purchased at your local supermarket, but the wave of popularity it once enjoyed seems to have moved on to other foods.

What memories of your moms and cottage cheese do you conjure up, boomers?