Your food: is it friend or foe?

“Food is my enemy. It is poison to my body.” I repeat that a dozen times before I eat, and could you imagine what wonders it does? – Female blogger.

By
November 22, 2011 23:23
Sweets at grocery checkout counter

sweets at grocery checkout counter 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Idon’t know about you, but the above declaration made me shudder. It’s so extreme – a ticket to anorexia – but a close friend whom I regard as fairly sensible recently told me essentially the same thing, and I didn’t know whether to feel shock or compassion. A bit of both, perhaps.

No one would seriously suggest that gasoline is poison to a car, and that your vehicle can “do wonders” on empty.

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And most people will see the absurdity in the story of the farmer who boasted that he had trained his horse to work without eating, and then cursed his bad luck when the animal suddenly went and died.

Yet in stark and ironic contrast to large tracts of the developing world whose inhabitants are dying daily from lack of food, there are people in Western countries with an abundant supply of food who see food as a cunning and problematic foe. The more you are able to deny yourself, they seem to be saying, the better off you’ll be.

They are regrettably strengthened in this philosophy by the fashion and beauty industries, which extol a level of thinness regarded as thoroughly unattractive by previous generations; and they are driven crazy by the advertising industry, which touts stay-thin-at-all-costs while relentlessly promoting high-calorie sweets and treats.

Hapless recipients of these mixed messages, in thrall to impossibly slender images of themselves, may swing between periods of self-imposed near-starvation (“dieting”) followed – since such a regimen is untenable for long – by bouts of bingeing, accompanied by feelings of guilt.

MUCH CAN be said about all this, but what seems to me one of the saddest things is that eating, meant to be one of life’s great pleasures, has for many in modern Western society turned into a process characterized by self-denial, anxiety and even despair.

I firmly believe that, doctor’s orders aside, the sentence “I’m on a diet” – which generally refers to some fad promising rapid and effortless weight loss – should be struck from our lexicon. That’s because it cuts people off, leaving them either resentful at not being able to eat “like everyone else,” or throwing moderation to the winds and feeling terrible about “breaking their diet” yet again.

Either way, they never really enjoy their food – and that’s a crying shame.

Some food for thought: the word “diet” originally meant a food plan, not food deprivation.

I’ve written before about my Shabbat lunch guest who declared herself on a diet, refused all my (healthy) dishes and finally helped herself to a couple of pieces of lettuce, which she proceeded to weigh on a tiny scale. The rest of us were too stunned to laugh, which was probably just as well.

One thing nutritionists agree on is that when we deny our bodies food for long periods, they go into “starvation mode” and batten down the hatches, clinging for dear life to their fat stores. It’s no way to lose weight, even without the attendant harmful swings in blood sugar levels.

The only time I ever really succeeded in losing weight and keeping it off was when I consulted an expert dietician, ate three balanced meals a day (plus a bedtime snack) and did some exercise. I was surprised at how unhungry I stayed during the process, the elements of which I still follow.

IF YOU’RE intent on pinpointing an edible enemy, there is one deserving category: the ubiquitous office candy bowl, or those cakes and cookies regularly brought in by coworkers with the best of intentions. The act feels friendly, innocuous. But it can be an ongoing nightmare for those trying to limit their sugar intake.

In a four-week study by the Wall Street Journal encompassing 40 secretaries, participants ate 2.5 more pieces of chocolate when the candy was displayed in a clear, covered dish. That was in addition to the 3.1 candies they would have eaten had the candy been in an opaque container. Moreover, when the dish was moved closer to the subject, participants consumed a further 2.1 candies.

The study concluded what we have long suspected: that proximity and visibility of a food can consistently increase consumption.

Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and author of Mindless Eating, says that chocolate sitting in a clear jar near office workers can add up to seven pounds gained in weight during a single year. When sugary treats are out on view, it seems we succumb even when we’re not hungry. We take a piece simply “because it’s there.”

“[People] will look at that candy dish and... grab that candy without even thinking about it; but move the dish just six feet away, and those cravings will be reduced by half,” Wansink adds.

My conclusion: Chocolate is delightful as an occasional friend. Don’t risk turning it into an enemy by too close an acquaintance.

AWARD-WINNING author, journalist, professor and “liberal intellectual foodie” Michael Pollan sees “edible food-like substances” as an enemy and urges us to seek out “real food.” In his latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010) he helps readers “navigate that now very treacherous landscape of the American supermarket.”

And the Israeli one, I would add.

Avoid “anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he cautions. And don’t buy anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Moreover, he advises, stay out of the middle area of the supermarket. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced when it goes bad. As a rule, he says, things that never go bad – like Twinkies – aren’t food.

Pollan, whose humor is as delightful as his comments are pointed – in a piece called “Unhappy Meals” (The New York Times, 2007) he refers to “the silence of the yams” – opposes what he calls “nutritionism,” the modern trend of focusing on the invisible nutrients in foods instead of on the foods themselves.

Foods are more than just delivery systems for nutrients, he stresses – adding that nutritionism has been a boon for manufacturers of processed foods, who can advertise a product as containing “Added Nutrient X.”

In truth, Pollan says, we don’t know how effective any nutrient is once it has been separated from the food in which it naturally occurs.

“We know carrots are good for you, right?” he told Kerry O’Brian of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2008.

“People have been eating them for a long time, and the assumption was that what was good in cancer prevention in the carrot was the beta carotene... So we extracted that and we made these supplement pills and we gave them to people.

But,” Pollan went on, “in certain populations such as heavy drinkers, people were actually more likely to get cancer on beta carotene.” It may be that beta carotene is not the key ingredient, he said, pointing out that carrots contain 50 other carotenes. There may also be all sorts of synergies occurring between ingredients.

“Food is incredibly complex... we don’t know what’s going on deep in the soul of a carrot. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can reduce it to these chemicals. We don’t, as eaters, need to know what makes carrots work. We can eat carrots, they taste good, they’re good for you. It’s that simple.”

At any given time, Pollan notes, there is a bad nutrient we try to drive out “like Satan” from the food supply.

“First it was saturated fats, then it was trans fat. Then there is the blessed nutrient. If we get enough of that, we will be healthy and maybe live forever. It’s funny through history how the good and bad guys keep changing.”

INTERVIEWED by LA City Beat in 2006, Pollan agreed that in America, food is often regarded as the enemy.

“[We Americans] have demonized food,” he told Krista Walton. “We think about food in terms of evil nutrients and good nutrients, and lose track of the fact that [food is] a lot more than nutrition. It’s a way you build community, it is part of culture, and it helps define culture. Think what it means to be French in the absence of French food, or to be Italian in the absence of Italian food. You’d be missing a big part of [the culture].”

“Yes, Americans have lost it,” an astute friend of mine commented. “The more they suffer guilt over gaining weight as a result of eating anything at all, the more processed their foods become, containing so much hidden sugar, salt, fats and chemicals.”

America’s food culture has been eroded under the pressure of the processed-food industry, Pollan says.

“They’re very interested in changing the food culture, because [it] gets in the way of eating too much. The food culture tells you: Don’t snack between meals; eat at a table with other people and not in your car – where [the food industry] is very interested in getting us to eat as much as possible on as many occasions as possible during the day.”

Twenty percent of the food Americans eat is consumed in their cars, Pollan observes.

WHEN I stand in line to pay at the supermarket, I often pass the time by taking a peek at what my fellow shoppers have in their carts. Israelis have a great fondness for the Mediterranean diet, and so their purchases usually include fair quantities of vegetables, fruits, white cheeses and yogurts. But, equally, I am often dismayed by the number of processed items and chemically colored drinks people seem to feel they need.

“It’s the Americanization of our culture,” my friend commented.

I hate the idea of food being an enemy that must constantly be held at bay. I love the idea of choosing food that my great-grandmother would have recognized. The danger exists of “edible food-like substances,” processed to within an inch of their artificial lives, radically altering people’s taste buds so that Bisli will always win out over a banana.

Let’s stay aware of that danger. And let’s welcome more real food into our lives.


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