Thursday, April 03, 2008

I'll Take Fries With That

I'll Take Fries With That
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2008

We are food obsessed in this country. How it's made, where it comes from, whether it's organic, and how much we eat. Or more importantly, what we don't eat.

Barry Glassner, author of the book "The Gospel of Food," says that we Americans have got it plain wrong when it comes to our food.

Glassner says we think food is good or evil, saintly or demonic. We even describe it in religious terms. Vegetables are "good" for you, while triple chocolate cake is "sinful," especially "devil's food" But there are so many new fad diets, we jump from cult to cult as each new season brings a new food finding, each of them weirder and more far out than the last. It's like the Kabbalah of food.

As a result, we fear our food. We fear fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, red meat, and genetically modified broccoli. We pride ourselves on what we eat and don't eat. We define our meals, and ultimately ourselves, not by what we have in them, but what we leave out. And we brag about it.

"I'm on the Atkins diet. No carbs for me!" we tell our friends.

"Oh yeah? I've been doing Dean Ornish's no-fat diet for three years," they tell us. "I won't even look at a pat of butter." They grimace and spit emphatically to show how much they hate fat. Unfortunately, the sudden facial movements make their hair fall out and the skin flake off their gaunt, bony cheeks, because we need some fat in our diets just to survive.

(For the record, several years ago, I did the Atkins diet for about 15 months, and lost 45 pounds. I gained 25 of it back when I quit. I also tried the Ornish diet for a week, and gained five. In retrospect, eating an entire box of diet cookies every day probably didn't help.)

Eating should be a source of joy. In only four countries around the world -- Australia, Britain, South Korea, and Thailand -- does the word "enjoy" appear in the government's dietary guidelines, but not us. Norway actually says it outright: "food and joy = health." But we Americans have no joy in our food, unless it's the joy of denial.

There are people who take great pride in what they deny themselves, what Glassner calls the "gospel of naught." They figure if they deny themselves food that tastes good, they're being healthier. And by being healthier, they're better than those of us who choose steak over half a skinless chicken breast -- because dark meat is too delicious -- lovingly sprinkled with organic lemon grass. They have a Puritan approach to their food.

If we deny ourselves pleasure, they think, we are holy. Or at least holier than those fat slobs munching on a Big Mac in the car next to us. Those people don't know the joys of rice cakes and bottled water, sniff the Puritans. They'll never experience the joys of baked soy bean snacks and skim milk. They'll never enjoy or the internal screams of anguish and despair we get from watching someone else eat a piece of chocolate cake.

I'd rather be wrong. I've resigned myself to eating that cake with a glass of 2% milk, and never feel the same joy of food Puritans feel. And by joy, I mean doubling over from hunger pangs.

Part of the problem is we get all sorts of information about what is good for us and bad for us, but no one can agree.

The Atkins Diet people think we should avoid carbs, and eat more protein. The Ornish Diet people gnash their teeth and shriek that the Atkins people should be imprisoned.

Chinese food is bad for us. Movie popcorn is bad for us. Even eggs were supposed to be bad for us. However, this myth was debunked harder than the clumsy kid falling out of bed at summer camp.

It turns out the Framingham heart study -- the one that nearly put American egg farmers out of business -- never actually found a connection between eating eggs and heart health. In fact, a study in the March 2005 issue of the International Journal of Cardiology found that eating two eggs a day for six weeks had no effect on total cholesterol or low density (bad) cholesterol. Which means the egg nay-sayers can just, well, go suck eggs. They're good for you again!

So, eat all the tofu and whey you want. Chow down on your kohlrabi and cabbage. Gorge yourself on legumes and lentils. You're welcome to them.

But as for me and my house, we will eat steak. Unless my wife says we're having fish.

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