If he heard a linguist explain the organic nature of words, Jeff Spicoli the surfer-dude character played by Sean Penn in the 1982 comedy classic, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" would call on the catchphrase he made commonplace: "Awesome! Totally awesome!"
Prior to the release of this movie, only a small segment of the California coastal community primarily surfers used "awesome" outside its dictionary definition of "inspiring awe," an emotion that's a combination of dread, respect, and wonder. For some reason, the surfers had started using the word as a way to say "terrific."
Spicoli imitated that tendency in the movie, the movie became a hit, and so did the new use of awesome. I knew nothing of the movie that summer, so when student after student returned to school that fall calling summer vacation and virtually everything else "awesome," it was confusing to me.
Later, when I needed to postpone a test and a chorus of "Awesome! Totally awesome!" rang out, I asked the class about their use of the word. That's when I heard about Spicoli and the movie and used that moment to illustrate the organic nature of words, that words grow and change to suit our needs.
Because of its continuing popularity, this relatively new definition of awesome has been added to most dictionaries and is listed beside the old one, which developed in 1598 from the noun "awe," a word in use since sometime in the 13th century.
So why the language lesson to start a health and fitness column? Because our poor eating habits have created the need for a new word.
Dysnutrition. And my fear is that it will soon be as well known as the new meaning of awesome.
For years, we have used "malnutrition" to describe a situation where someone does not receive sufficient vitamins and nutrients. In the past, however, that lack came from a lack of something else: sufficient calories. While a lack of calories still creates malnutrition in many Third World countries, the Western hemisphere and most definitely the United States face another problem.
Many people now eat foods so devoid of nutritional value and loaded with sugar and processed flour that they can lack sufficient vitamins and minerals despite ingesting enough calories to become overweight. Hence, the need for a new term, dysnutrition.
The prefix "dys-" means bad, impaired, or abnormal, so you can see the logic behind the new word. Dysnutrition occurs because people make poor food choices and because food manufacturers make a conscious decision to "devolve" foods, my personal term for when food manufacturers make foods nutritionally worse to make them look more appealing, last longer, or taste better simply to increase profit margin.
Take yogurt, a powerful dieting aid, as an example.
In a University of Tennessee study done nearly 10 years ago, dieters who ate 500 calories less than normal but included three 6-ounce servings of fat-free yogurt a day lost 22 percent more weight and 61 percent more body fat than other dieters in the same study who cut cals by the same amount but ate only one daily serving of yogurt. The fat-free yogurt eaters lost 81 percent more abdominal fat than the group that only consumed 6 ounces of fat-free yogurt a day.
This study supports the belief that calcium, a mineral that's abundant in yogurt, helps regulate appetite and the fat-burning process, and just 8 ounces of what I consider to be the healthiest kind of yogurt, nonfat Greek style, generally supplies 30 percent of the government's suggested daily intake of that mineral. Eight ounces of a typical nonfat Greek yogurt also supplies 23 grams of protein, nearly as much as 3.5 ounces of lean ground beef broiled but with 150 fewer calories; 510 milligrams of a mineral most of us lack, potassium; and only 9 grams of natural sugar.
But most people who eat yogurt don't eat nonfat Greek yogurt. They opt for a full-fat or reduced-fat flavored brand, and guess what gives it the flavor? Sugar. Startling amounts of added sugar.
Check out the choices at any grocery store, and you'll find a number of brands with more than three times the sugar as Greek nonfat yogurt and about a third of its protein.
That's what I mean when I use the phrase the devolution of a food. The food enters the public's consciousness because of its healthy qualities. Food producers know, however, that most people still use taste to determine purchases.
What food producers also know is that tastes are acquired, and that most consumers are used to tasting things further sweetened with added sugars.
So the food producers add sugar to yogurt, tout it as a health food, and the public buys the product and the specious logic.
The same pattern has occurred in the marketing of granola, granola bars, rice cakes, fiber cereal, and many other seemingly healthy foods.
Be aware of that or you may encounter dysnutrition as more than just a new vocabulary word.