Lessons From the MST3K Vault

Mike and the 'BotsEvery single member of my family is a die-hard “MSTie” – that is, a fan of the now-defunct Sci-Fi Channel comedy show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST3K). The first time I watched the show, I thought the premise (a man and two robots forced to watch bad movies on an orbiting space station as part of a mind-control experiment) was totally lame, but I got hooked pretty quickly on the humor. Although the show’s long gone, we still watch our favorite episodes from time-to-time (courtesy of Cheepnis.com).

But as funny as the movies were, the “shorts” that often preceded them were even better. Many of the latter were send-ups of old, black-and-white 1950’s, low-budget “public service announcements” and instructional films that illustrated how folks of that era were expected to behave in various situations. Beyond the laughs, however, one of the things we noticed while watching them, was how “normal” the people looked. The majority of them were relatively lean – even those who were obviously not professional actors.  I wasn’t too surprised, though – these films were in the can long before the current “obesity crisis” got rolling.

As such, the shorts – très amusant though they are – offer some interesting insights for those of us living in the 21st century. While we wouldn’t want to return to those days (!), there are definitely some take-home lessons that we would all do well to keep in mind.

Consider, for example, “A Day at the Fair.”

I picked this particular vid because there are a number of unstaged crowd shots.  Yes, there are a few chunky folks – the camera even pans over an obese person or two – but most of the people you see are trim. And doncha know, it’s NOT because they ate healthier food than what’s available today. As noted by Atlantic Monthly columnist Megan McArdle:

Corn, and simple starches more broadly, have been the cheapest part of the American diet for centuries.  As a child, my mother didn’t get any fresh vegetables at all eight months out of the year, because they simply weren’t available.  She got frozen or canned, but their two winter staples were sugared homemade applesauce and butternut sqaush, both of which are basically pure simple carbohydrate.  Lean chicken was pricier than beef, but fatty pork was cheaper than either.  Look in a cookbook from the thirties or fifties and you’ll find that recipes for some sort of mostly starch dish are at least 65% of the book.  And those weren’t healthy whole grains, either.  They were white flour, or rice, richly laced with fat and sugar.

While I’m not completely on board with McArdle’s overall thesis – her observation about the quality of the food rings true. I grew up in the starch-heavy 60’s, where instant mashed potatoes, “balloon bread,” white pasta, white rice and grits (ah’m ‘riginally from Atlanta, Georgia) were eaten daily.  Our steaks were fatty T-bones, our (skin-on) chicken and fish were fried, our veggies were canned and/or cooked to a fare-thee-well (e.g., fried corn and squash cooked to baby food consistency) and our salads were made with iceberg lettuce. And then, of course, there were the desserts: Twinkies, Moon Pies, cakes (made from Betty Crocker mixes, natch), “Rice Krispies Treats” etc. Yet, despite the fattening, nutrient-deprived food served up each day, overt obesity was relatively rare.

What gives? I think it comes down to two, distinct shifts, both of which can be discerned in these old vids: 1) physical activity; and 2) food culture.

The first, physical activity, has definitely changed between then and now. Today, people drive everywhere and often hold jobs that mandate sitting for long hours at a time. It’s the rare person who walks or bikes to work (or anywhere else, for that matter). I’m fortunate enough to live in a “walkable” neighborhood, where there are stores and businesses within a few blocks of my home. Yet, when I walk to the gym in the afternoon, I’m practically the ONLY person on foot, as far down the road as I can see.  Over the 12 minutes it takes me to get to Golds, hundreds of cars zoom past, and I walk by hundreds more in the strip mall parking lot between the sidewalk and the entrance.

Needless to state, most adults did not work out in gyms in the 1950’s. In fact, unless they were athletes, most didn’t get any regular exercise at all – at least as we know it. So how did most of them stay lean? While it doesn’t leap out at you in the “Fair” vid, people back then simply moved around more over the course of the day. Despite being fully mechanized, farming and raising livestock involved physical labor. Even housekeeping – while not particularly strenuous – kept folks on their feet.

Can you stay thin just by moving around? Yup. Science even has a name for this phenomenon: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).

Kids and teens were far more active as well: physical education and sports were  regular features of the school day. In addition, many adult jobs involved more intense manual labor than they do today – as seen in the “Why Study Industrial Arts?” vid below.

Now that we’re firmly entrenched in the “information age,” exercise is something we have to add to our schedules, on top of everything else we’ve got going on. It’s no longer integrated into the work day, but is a leisure time activity – and has to compete with other, often more attractive possibilities. This is what makes the “Work Heart” requirement in Alpha Male Challenge so brilliant. It revives the notion that activity should be part of one’s work day, rather than simply tacked onto the beginning or end of it. This is especially important, in light of the fact that sitting for prolonged periods – in and of itself – may increase our risk of disease, regardless of our gym habits. The more we move around, the better.

The second point – the shift in food culture – is neatly illustrated by another classic vid from MST3K: “A Date With Your Family.”

Servo’s “Woody Allen Story” quip cracks me up every time, but – despite the stiff, repressive atmosphere on display – there was a plus: people primarily ate home-cooked food.  And meals were pretty disciplined affairs – you were given modest portions; you ate what you were given, and that was that. Nutritionally speaking, the food wasn’t great, but you didn’t eat a whole lot of it, either. This is also evident in the “Fair” video at the top.  One of the things you DON’T see is a ton of the over-the-top, greaseball fair food that’s a hallmark of today’s county/state level events: deep fried Snicker’s bars, deep fried Oreos and – so help me – deep fried butter.

Similarly, there wasn’t a lot of junk within immediate reach for indiscriminate snacking at home, either.  If you wanted something to eat, you had to make it yourself…or else wait until the wimminz made it for you – those were the daze, after all.  And those “good old days” were quite a departure from today’s massive portions and instant junk/snack/convenience food gratification.

But just for the record, kids – let’s not go TOO far in drawing lessons from this vid: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” is NOT a good response to the current food dilemma – despite what some professional “Foodies” think.

I watched an episode of the show You Are What You Eat on Saturday. Gillian McKeith hosts the show, doling out questionable nutritional advice to fat people. The family featured on this episode consisted of a mom, a dad, and four children, and Gillian’s goal was to get them to change their eating and exercise habits. Most of the shaming was reserved for the mother. As the man of the house stood by, Gillian told mom she’s killing her children with unhealthy food. But my jaw dropped when she blamed mom for her husband’s bad diet and poor health as well. Everyone’s waistline is at mom’s mercy, according to Gillian. She’s not the only one who thinks so.

The notion that (pro bono) cooking is women’s work is popping up all over the food movement. The first season of Gordon Ramsay’s show The F Word (which I happen to love) was based around his cheekilytitled “Get Women Back in the Kitchen” campaign. Modern women “can’t cook to save their lives,” Ramsay quipped.

This is yet another area where the Alpha Male Challenge is way ahead of the curve. It is, first and foremost, a men’s book – yet there are recipes, meal plans, and nary a hint that anyone but men themselves are responsible for food preparation. It also explicitly encourages men to involve their families, and to take an active role in helping EVERYONE to eat better.

Unfortunately, cooking can be difficult and time-consuming – even if you’re not putting a full, formal, 1950’s style meal on the table. It’s the lack of time, energy and – particularly – expertise that’s fueling the rise in fast/junk/convenience food consumption, above and beyond the contrived tastiness. This makes it tough to change your eating habits, even when you know you should. To be blunt, if you can’t cook, you have less control over your nutrition – since you (and your family) are at the mercy of others.

So there are several take home lessons here, courtesy of Mike & the ‘Bots:

  1. It’s important to be more active in general – if you’re doing the Alpha Male Challenge, don’t limit yourself to simply meeting your Work Heart requirement – look for ways to move around throughout the day. And if you’re not doing the Challenge… well, same deal.
  2. View “Operation Minesweeper” as a permanent change  – as noted in Alpha Male Challenge, it’s imperative to get the junk and snack food out of the house.  But there’s more than the success of a 10-week program at stake… ideally, the crap should stay gone, even after your fitness/physique goals have been met. A return to munching will put you right back where you started from.
  3. Keep portion sizes modest: “Man-Handing” your meals – as James and Rick recommend in Alpha Male Challenge – is a great way to keep things under control.
  4. Work on honing your cooking skills. If you’re already adept, teach your kids (my kids, for example, have their own cookbooks, and they each cook dinner for the family one night/week). If you don’t have any kids, start sharing your recipes and tips with others. There are great starter recipes in the back of Alpha Male Challenge, and we’ll be posting more here as time goes by.

3 Responses to “Lessons From the MST3K Vault”

  • Hey E.L.
    Everything in your post is so true! I worked as a corporate employee in a cubicle for years and added 20 pounds. Now I work on my own, and took on the Alpha Male Challenge. Buy what a difference in my waist, energy level and self-image! One thing that has reallyhelped my cooking –and I recommend it– is grilling. I use an electric grill and it has nmade a great difference. I used to eat fast food all the time but now with the grill I have high quality meals in just a few minutes.
    Thanks for sharing!
    –Mario Miranda.

  • E.L. Lowe:

    Thanks Mario – and congrats on completing the Challenge!

    I have a George Foreman grill – and I love it. It really comes in handy for quick meals. It’s a snap to throw together a marinade, toss in some lean meat or chicken breasts and chill overnight… then cook it all up the next day. I always make extra, so there’s plenty of cooked meat around for wraps, quick stir-fries and salads.

  • […] This is a point I’ve made before, but it bears repeating. James and Rick, of course, have made it too. This is the rationale behind the “Work Heart” requirement in Alpha Male Challenge.  Ultimately, the point of “Work Heart” is to get people off their butts and move around more throughout the day. All those little moments of extra activity really do make a difference. As they put it. “[i]t’s all about making each moment really count.”   […]

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