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One Nation, Under Grease

Divided we may vote, but united we eat: Why Americans and our presidents have a long history of snacking on junk food
Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images
Presidents' Favorite Foods Throughout History

Ask someone on the street what they remember about Ronald Reagan's presidency, and you'll likely receive one of two answers: trickle-down economics or his love for Jelly Bellys. Reagan stocked the White House and Capitol Hill with 720 bags of his favorite candies every single month.

While debating the merits of Reagan's controversial economic theory can leave a bitter taste in your mouth, there's something about those tiny treats that can bond even the most politically divided people in sweet, delicious unity. Money may or may not trickle down, but perhaps presidential tastes might.

Photo: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

Reagan's snacking habits almost pale in comparison to those of other former presidents dating back to the nation's third commander in chief, Thomas Jefferson, who introduced the U.S. to foods like french fries and ice cream. His love of butter seemed to pass down to William Taft, who could eat an entire steak covered in the stuff during a single sitting for breakfast—with a side of buttered toast.

As kitchen equipment modernized, so did the tastes of U.S. presidents. Soon, people were frying anything they could get their hands on, White House residents included. Theodore Roosevelt took his fried chicken soaked in gravy, and Lyndon B. Johnson liked his chicken-fried steak.

It wasn't until the 1980s when presidents started to opt for food made outside of the White House. George H. W. Bush could often be found crunching on pork rinds (fried pork skins) covered in hot sauce, while his son, George W. Bush, would order cheesy nachos and cheeseburger pizzas. When Bill Clinton couldn't order a jalapeño cheeseburger from one of his favorite local joints in Arkansas, he could be seen jogging over to McDonald's in an ironic move to pick up a burger and fries. His rendezvous to the golden arches later became the inspiration for a hilarious sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Clinton's diet, however, turned out not to be much of a laughing matter. In 2004, The Washington Post reported that he received an emergency bypass surgery after doctors found "four major blood vessels that supply oxygen to Clinton's heart were . . . blocked, some by as much as 90 percent." Clinton has since resorted to a primarily plant-based diet.

Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images 

Yet a fellow president's brush with death isn't enough to dissuade President Donald Trump from filling up on McDonald's. In Let Trump Be Trump, former campaign managers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie detail just how jarring the president's eating habits really are.

"On Trump Force One there were four major food groups: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke," one passage reads, according to The Washington Post. Lewandowski and Bossie also accuse Trump of eating "two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish, and a chocolate malted" in a single sitting. 

A meal like this makes headlines because of the nature of the person consuming it. But for everyone else, those who don't happen to have been one of the 44 presidents the United States, it's by no means out of the ordinary. Junk foods are hard to refuse, and Americans know it.

Since Jefferson's days in the Oval Office, sugar, salts and fats have become staples in the American diet, much to the chagrin of medical professionals everywhere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2015, the United States produced enough refined sugar to provide each American with 129 pounds for consumption. And the CDC reports that fast food made up 11.3 percent of the average American's daily calories between 2007 and 2010.

For Dr. Alexandra Sowa, a board-certified internist specializing in nutrition and prevention, the cause for all this "junk" consumption might boil (or deep-fry) down to our emotional state, especially when we're stressed—a feeling all too well known to someone in a high-profile job.

"For many, there is a sense of comfort and familiarity associated with fast food, as they've enjoyed the same flavors since childhood," she says. "There is also an innate tendency to reach for 'junk' food in times of high stress. This biologic response to store as much fat as possible is primarily driven by insulin and cortisol, the stress hormone." 

Lindsey Smith, the author of Eat Your Feelings, echoes Dr. Sowa's sentiments and adds that, over time, our bodies can become dependent on unhealthy food as we crave a quick fix. The problem, she says, is that the more we reach for, say, a bag of potato chips instead of something like avocados, we wind up depriving ourselves of the amino acids needed to create serotonin and dopamine. Eventually, we could be living in an unhealthy cycle where we eat because we're stressed, and we are stressed because of what we eat. 

"When you go for the ice cream or the pizza or whatever, and you're doing that every day, your body is mimicking that it's getting [serotonin and dopamine], but it's not actually," she says. "Over time, your mood is going to deflate. . . . You could find yourself being angrier or depressed, or you could have anxiety. These things could be directly related to the food you're eating or, essentially, not eating." 

If stress plays such a significant role in our eating habits, it makes sense that so many presidents would feel the need to load up on fatty foods. Johnson was thrust into the presidency following John F. Kennedy's assassination. The jelly bean-loving Reagan was wrapped up in the Iran-Contra Affair. Clinton was impeached (though the Senate later voted to acquit him of the most damning charges). Bush Sr. oversaw Operation Desert Storm, while Bush Jr. declared a "war on terror" following the horrific events of 9/11.

Much has been made of Trump's eating habits. And though he has plenty to be stressed about—Special Counsel Robert Mueller is still investigating potential ties between his campaign and Russia—his habits might have more to do with paranoia than anxiety.

In his controversial book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, author Michael Wolff alleges that Trump prefers McDonald's ready-made meals over something freshly prepared, citing a belief that consuming premade fast food will reduce the likelihood of someone intentionally poisoning him. (It may be worthwhile to note that President Zachary Taylor died after eating a contaminated or spoiled cherry and that some still believe President Warren Harding's heart attack had more to do with someone slipping him a deadly substance than natural causes.)

There's a joke here about the irony in believing that eating fast food is safer than a home-cooked meal, but discussions about diet shouldn't be focused on shaming people for their food choices. Dr. Adrienne Youdim, MD FACP and associate professor of clinical medicine at UCLA, argues that occasionally eating junk food can be part of a well-balanced diet, which is great news considering the world would be a much darker place without Flamin' Hot Cheetos and generously buttered popcorn.

"Sometimes, you crave what you want, and that's fine," she says. The trick, she adds, is to cut down on our sodium intakes and adopt more of a Mediterranean-style diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. And, yes, she says that means she'd never recommend eating a well-done steak with two scoops of ice cream for dinner à la President Trump.

"It's very clear that excess sodium has adverse effects, particularly in regards to the brain," Dr. Youdim says. "It increases the incidence of stroke."

Additionally, foods high in sugar, salt and fats appear to have a lasting impact on cognitive brain function.

"Research shows that elevated glucose levels—even without the diagnosis of diabetes—is linked with dementia," Dr. Sowa says. "New animal research also shows that a diet high in salt, irrespective of blood pressure, worsens memory function. What it all comes down to is inflammation—excess sugar, salt and unhealthy fat all cause the body and brain to promote a state of inflammation, which accelerates the aging process, both cognitively and physically."

If you've ever wondered why presidents seem to age so much quicker than the rest of us, diet, as well as stress, may be to blame. Ultimately, everyone—yes, including Trump— would all benefit from thinking more about how what we put in our mouths affects our mental and cognitive health. Your brain will thank you for it.

Madison Medeiros is a freelance writer based out of California who covers politics, food and drink, entertainment, sex and wellness. Follow her on Twitter at @shmadison.

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