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.
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
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.
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
Either way, they never really enjoy their food – and that’s a
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
(2010) he helps readers “navigate that now very treacherous
landscape of the American supermarket.”
And the Israeli one, I would
Avoid “anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,”
he cautions. And don’t buy anything with ingredients you can’t
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.
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.
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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.