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Bad Habits #6 – Why Georgia is So Obese

I spent most of my life (even the portion where I kicked around a lot because the Army would relocate my dad every year or so) somewhere to the south of the Mason-Dixon line.  And the overwhelming majority of it was in Georgia, either during the time my father was at Fort Stewart, or when we moved to Savannah after he retired.

Georgia.  The land of pine trees and magnolias.  Of gorgeous Appalachian trails and magnificent coastal salt marshes.  A place where the weather never got too cold, and I could spend my days hiking nature trails through swamps or mountains, swimming in the Atlantic, rafting down majestic rivers (including that one the filmed Deliverance on), or hitting golf balls in one of many world class golf courses (I’m lying, I couldn’t afford Augusta National to save my life), or just traipsing around the historic district of Savannah if there was nothing else to do.

But it’s a wonder with all of the things there are to do that Georgians are such giant fatasses.  And our neighboring states have high obesity rates too, frequently higher than Georgia’s.  Make no mistake, the South is by far the fattest part of the country.  Part of it is that we suffer from the same problem most Americans have, and that (as I’ve pointed out before) is not getting nearly enough exercise, because we have increasingly sedentary lifestyles.  But a huge part of it is the food we eat.

Southern food is a captivating mix of European, African, and Native American cooking styles.  Various exotic sauces and spices and meats and vegetables combined in a heavenly, rapturous blend.  Food so good that it makes the spirit sing and engenders feelings of great joy and contentment.  The problem is, it makes your gut expand rather rapidly, and can lead to hypertension, high cholesterol, blocked arteries, and early, painful death.

Now, I’m never giving up the glorious cuisine of the South.  I’m convinced that the same way God dropped manna from heaven on the Hebrews, he dropped pan-fried and slow-smoked food on the South.  This diet of the American Holy Land will always be a part of my life.

But I am going to need to be a bit mindful of what the cost of eating these things are.  One thing about the calorie counting diet I’ve been on is that I don’t have to worry about “cheating”.  If I eat something a bit heavy, it just means I have to work it off, or eat less heavy things at the next meal.  So I can occasionally indulge in the diet of the Bible Belt, as long as I’m willing to run a lot.

So, let’s not bury the lede here.  Let’s start with the most obviously unhealthy thing we eat in the South.  The oil soaked Ambrosia of the Gods.  Fried Chicken.  The one food that makes all others seem meagre and pale by comparison.

The problem is, a typical fried chicken breast has about 350-400 calories.  A thigh will have 300-350 calories.  And wings and drumsticks tend to range between 150 and 200.  So any two of these will be all of the calories I should eat in a single meal, even before I eat the side dishes.  Unless I were to just eat a drumstick and a wing.  But I’m not a degenerate.  I would never do that.

It’s not all bad news.  The oils provide some Omega-3 fatty acids (if cooked in the right kind of oil) and there’s plenty of B vitamins and such.  But there’s also plenty of cholesterol and sodium.  So the bad outweighs the good.  So, sadly, I’ve realized the need to limit this most tempting, but least healthy, of Southern fare.

This is easier said than done.  I live in the Tampa Bay area, home of Publix supermarkets.  I’ve noted in a past post that they have the absolute best (and most unhealthy) fried chicken.  I occasionally succumb to the temptation, but I’ve learned to do it rarely.  This is something to do on special occasions.  It’s no longer a staple of my diet.

Fried chicken isn’t the only thing we fry.  We also like dead pigs.  Specifically, pork chops.  A six ounce fried pork chop can have 400 – 450 calories.  Then there’s the peculiar dish known as “Chicken Fried Steak”, which in no way involves chicken.  I guess we just call it that to confuse foreigners and tourists.  Anyway, this precursor of bypass surgery can have 450-500 calories.  And that’s when we don’t put gravy on it.  Which is…never.

Of course, we do have healthier options in the form of seafood.  On the coast, we have shrimp, oysters, and scallops, as well as various fish from the Atlantic or the many freshwater lakes.  The only problem is, we tend to fry those too, adding on serious calories.  A six ounce fried catfish (or almost any other fish) has about 400 calories.  Six jumbo fried shrimp will have 300, and six fried scallops will have 350.  Six fried oysters, on the other hand, only have about 200, so those aren’t bad.   And make no mistake, all of these still have the nutrient benefits of seafood.  But our tendency to add Southern Heart Attack Sauce (I.E. some sort of oil or grease, in excessive portions) and fry them makes the meal a bit more costly than it otherwise would be.

And just to maintain the unhealthy theme, we like to fry a lot of our sides too.  Like fried okra and fried squash and fried zucchini and fried green tomatoes.  A side of any of these (say, half a cup) in raw form would normally have maybe 15 calories.  But by applying Southern Ingenuity, we’ve managed to give these sides about ten times the calories they would normally have.  Happy artery hardening.

And this is just the stuff normal, sane people eat.  In the land of cacti, cowboys, and overly large hats (Texas), they will actually eat fried butter.  It’s as if the butter alone wasn’t unhealthy enough, and they had to add to it.  I’ve always found this strangely redundant, since they’re effectively just taking fat and frying it in…other fat.  I’ve never had this (it sounds gross) but I encourage a hard pass by the entire human race.  Just don’t.

So I guess the short version of all of this is that fried stuff is to be avoided.  I know, it’s the best stuff there is.  Magnificent flavors that make your soul rejoice.  And also hastens its departure to the great beyond.  Apart from a periodic splurge, we should try to have healthier things.

And then there’s the other type of heart attack inducing awesomeness that the South is known for.  The slowly cooked celestial magnificence known as barbecue.  Mesmerizing fatty, smoky goodness.  Which, like it’s fried cousins, can also cause an early trip to the pearly gates.  Or the infernal reaches, if you’re the type of person who might deserve that.  Such as people who think that tofu counts as food or that hockey is a real sport or that bourbon should be mixed with… anything.  Anyway, the point is, too much barbecue can be bad for you.  Even if you don’t end up in perdition.

We’ll start with the most heavenly of all things barbecue: Ribs.  Of course, ribs are truly divine.  I mean, Eve was made out of one (duh).  But I guess that’s beside the point.  Ribs can be a bit heavy on the calories.  Six ounces of pork spare ribs (which tends to be about four ribs) will get you 600-700 calories, depending on how fat the pig was.   This is an entire meal.  Pork back ribs are a little better, netting 450 to 500 calories.  And beef ribs are actually about the same as the pork ribs, spare or back. Long story short, any day you eat ribs, you should probably have at least one light meal.  And run.  A lot.

But ribs aren’t the only barbecue selection.  No self respecting barbecue place would fail to have smoked sausages.  These aren’t noticeably better than the ribs, though.  Six ounces will get you about 600 calories.  And there’s also smoked beef brisket, which comes in between 350 to 550 for each six ounces, depending on if it came from the fatted calf, or his skinny cousin.  

Fortunately, there are healthier alternatives.  Six ounces of pulled pork (a staple of barbecue places everywhere) only has about 300 calories.  That tends to be because they tend to not pull the fat with the pork.  And there’s always barbecue chicken, which only has about 250 calories for a six ounce portion.   So, unlike the fried deliciousness the South is most known for, barbecue doesn’t have to be unhealthy.  Just choose wisely.

Of course, there are a variety of other things that tend to be unique to the South.  Such as those from the Blessed Lands of Marshes and Mosquitoes along the Atlantic Coast, where I grew up.  The area of the Georgia and Carolina coasts also known as the Low Country.  Fair warning, there are some in South Carolina who will insist that they’re the true Low Country, and the neighboring states are pretenders.  But they’re just bloviating to compensate for the fact that they’re married to their cousins.  Don’t be fooled by these lies and heresies.

Anyway, in this Holiest of Holy parts of the Holy Land, you can get a Low Country Boil.  This is a tempting mix of sausage, shrimp, corn, veggies, and various other things, spiced and boiled to perfection.  And it only has about 200 – 300 calories for six ounces.  So, I tend to have more than that, because I can get away with it.  

There are a lot of people who consider the inhabitants of this part of the country to be snobs.  Now you know why.  We’ve managed to make a dish that is a delectable addition to Southern cuisine without the heart attack part.  So we’re not snobs, we’re just better than you.   

Another fairly healthy option common in this part of the country is shrimp and grits.  I know that some of you may think grits are disgusting and runny grossness.  It’s not my fault you worship the Devil.  Sure, grits are just corn meal, which is sort of bland.  But if you add shrimp and butter and other awesomeness, it’s quite tasty.  And one cup of this delight is only 250-300 calories.  So stop hating on grits.

As for the common Southern breakfast staple, biscuits and gravy, it’s…not so healthy.  Two biscuits slathered in gravy tend to offer 400 – 500 calories.  Unless that’s the only thing you eat for breakfast, there’s not much of nutritional value there.  And it should not be the only thing you eat for breakfast, unless you just want to be hungry again in an hour.

And then there’s the toothless hillbilly classic, liver and onions.   Six ounces has 300 calories.  So that’s not bad.  Just make sure you put enough onions on it to cover up the flavor.  Because liver is gross.  And liver is a cholesterol bomb.  But mostly, it’s gross.  I mean, there aren’t many calories, but did I mention it’s gross?

Sometimes, even the stuff we have on the side is too much.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t you inbreeders eat collard and turnip greens?  Well, yes.  And both are very good for you, as I’ve noted before.  And, by themselves, they have very few calories.  But we tend to add butter and bacon.  By the time we’re done, it’s over 300 calories.  And this is just a side dish.  No wonder we’re such blimps.  

Sometimes we’ll have our main course with a serving of Southern style mac and cheese.  Covered in mustard and cheese and other awesomeness.  But this tends to also be on the fattening side, as I’ve written about before.  This has about 200 – 250 calories.  Which is not great for a side dish.

And those little doughy things we call Hush Puppies can add to the waistline too .  Three will get you 200 calories or so.  They’re basically just cornbread, which also has about 200 calories for a medium sized square.  And that’s if you eat it without butter.  Which would never happen, because it’s another thing that can result in you being condemned to pandemonium.

You might be thinking, don’t you ever just have vegetables on the side?  Yes.  I already mentioned how we’ve problematized greens.  But when it comes to carrots, broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc, we eat those as well.  But apparently everyone in the South went to the Paula Deen school of cooking.  Which means you douse everything with butter.  Which adds 100-200 calories with no real benefit.

Fortunately, there are some healthy options.  One common side dish is southern style creamed corn.  A half cup of this (standard side dish size) only has about 90 calories.  And I know, eating creamed corn seems like you’re eating baby food.  But the upside of eating creamed corn is that when your body digests and…uh…eliminates it, you won’t recognize it when it…comes out the other side.

Then there’s always Brunswick Stew, which is tomato soup with beans, corn, okra, chicken, and shrimp, or any number of other things.  With a healthy amount of spice to jazz it up.  It was made originally in Brunswick, Georgia.  Unless you believe those lying liars who lie in Brunswick County, Virginia who claim they did it first.  A half cup of this only has about 60-90 calories.  

But even if we are smart with our side and main course choices, there’s a problem.  Another thing that adds to the Georgian waistline is that when we get done with our frequently (but not necessarily) unhealthy food, we go on to have unhealthy dessert.  Like pecan pie or peach cobbler.  A single serving of these tends to have 500 calories.  And if you plunk a blob of ice cream on it (which I always do, because I’m not an animal), it’ll add a couple hundred more.  I’ve noted before, dessert is not your friend.

So the point is, I’ve learned to limit the excesses of Southern cuisine.  I’ll occasionally splurge, though.  Instead of regularly eating fried things at my house, I’ll let it be a treat on a vacation instead.  For example, on our annual camping trip to the mountains (As I’ve mentioned before, camping is a good way to burn calories), we can’t avoid a trip to the world famous Dillard house in Dillard, Georgia (hence the name).   They serve literally everything I listed above.  Which we wolf down like condemned prisoners eating their last meal.  The problem is, they then bring more when we finish the first round.  It’s basically a trip to Golden Corral, only way more classy.  After hours of eating until I hate myself, my soul sings. Even as my arteries protest.

But I can get away with doing this once a year.  The problem with Georgia (and the lesser Southern states), is that we have a bad habit of eating like this year round.  We should not.  If you’re truly interested in not dying young, Southern food must be an occasional treat, not a staple.  I’ll never give it up, but I make a point of eating things that are good for the body, even if it makes my soul cry in despair.  Like kale and other things eaten by fancy people who only shop at Whole Foods.

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Published by drilldowndiet

Formerly obese CPA/health humorist using Cronometer and FitBod to lose weight. Sharing assorted life hacks to squeeze nutrition and exercise into a busy schedule. Also on Twitter at @drilldowndiet and Facebook.

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