January 24, 2005

PYRAMID SCHEME (via Robert Schwartz):

EATING MY SPINACH: Four Days on the Uncle Sam Diet ... (WILLIAM GRIMES, January 23, 2005, NY Times)

WHEN the Agriculture Department unveiled its new dietary guidelines this month, it laid down a challenge to all Americans: Eat better, smarter and healthier, or else. The "or else" included a long list of ailments that plague the developed world, from heart disease and osteoporosis to diabetes.

Along with the stick, however, came some nice, healthy carrots: Follow the guidelines and you will be stocking up on nutrients that help prevent cancer. You should also lose some weight. Odds are you'll live longer and feel better. Just stick to the road map.

I gave it a try, curious to see how hard it would be to change my eating patterns to fit the program, which seemed to be calling not just for nutritional change, but cultural change - a redefinition of what makes a meal.

For four days, I regulated my calories, stepped up my consumption of fruits and vegetables, cut down on fat and even, against every instinct in my body and soul, resumed an exercise regimen that I had tried and swiftly abandoned decades ago. It has been a testing period.

I took little notice of the previous guidelines, issued in 2000. At the time I was the restaurant critic for this newspaper, paid to trample on every rule in the dietary guidebook. I do recall looking quickly at the daily maximums and wondering how a recent meal at a Viennese-style cafe, where I sampled 12 desserts, would fit into the grid..

A year ago I left the restaurant beat, and since then I have eaten a fairly normal American diet, though with a pretentious urban slant. Never margarine, always butter, for example. Fine farmhouse cheeses rather than Kraft Singles. Ground buffalo instead of chuck. So I assumed that the new guidelines would not require any wrenching changes: A small adjustment here and there, but nothing I couldn't live with.

I was wrong. [...]

The guidelines were beginning to feel like wartime rationing. I walked around with a nagging feeling of being just slightly deprived. After two days, it began to haunt me.

I also began to chafe at the relentless assault on pleasure that the guidelines seemed to represent. At every turn, Americans were being urged to consume foods in their least tasty forms. There they were, the dreaded chicken breast with the skin removed, the unadorned steamed fish and the unspeakable processed cheeses.

In the world of the guidelines, food is a kind of medicine that, taken in the right doses, can promote good health. In the real world, of course, people regard food and its flavors as a source of pleasure. And therein lies just one of the problems with the guidelines, which my wife took one look at before saying with a shake of her head, "No one is ever going to eat like this."

As a cultural document, the guidelines are strange. They set themselves the worthy but futile goal of imposing a style of eating for which Americans have no model. It's all very well to announce that everyone should eat five servings of vegetables a day. But where does that fit in the culinary template that Americans instinctively consult when planning a meal? The typical American dinner is an entrée with a starch and a vegetable, preceded in some cases by a salad or soup and followed with dessert.

For Asians, it's quite normal to eat multiple vegetable dishes at the same meal (even at breakfast), and to prepare very small quantities of fish or meat with much larger quantities of rice. But Americans rarely eat multiple vegetable dishes except on Thanksgiving. If they are going to triple their vegetable consumption, they'll have to greatly enlarge the vegetable portions they do eat, throwing the meal off balance, or else walk around nibbling on carrots and cauliflower florets from a plastic bag.

The new guidelines are not just health policy, they're cultural policy, too. To comply fully, Americans will have to rethink their inherited notions of what makes a meal, and what makes a meal satisfying.

That is a very tall order - even taller than the daily mound of uncooked leafy vegetables that everyone is supposed to eat.


Be sure to read the whole thing--it's not just funny but maybe the most culturally conservative piece they'll run in '05.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 24, 2005 12:00 AM
Comments

I have no trouble eating five servings of vegetables. On the other hand, that might include fried cauliflower or parsnips boiled in maple syrup.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at January 24, 2005 1:05 AM

At some point, we have to make a decision about guidelines of this nature. When do we deny ourselves so many of this world's pleasures that continued life becomes existing and not living?

If I have to limit my intake to chopped kale cooked in vegetable broth what's the point of continuing to live? Family members living on our traditional diet of red meats, often smoked or cured, starches, spices(theres's no such thing as 'too much garlic'), liberal amounts of wine, lots of baked goods for dessert, have been living into the 80s for 4 generations that I know of. Most of my relatives are (horror of horrors!!) smokers, including my mother who just turned 75.

What is adopting the Buddhist Monk diet going to do for me? Add another decade on this Vale of Tears? For what?

Maybe, I'll be lucky and millions and millions of Americans will be taken in by this latter-day version of mortification of the flesh. Let them eat turnips, I say! If it lowers the cost of pastrami, filet mignon, sliced leg of veal, or really good pork tenderloin, it's just that much better for me.

Five servings of vegetables is no problem for me either. It's just that I'll need at least 5 servings of meats alongside.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 6:42 AM

The article is a hoot.

When I was in college, I read a (mercifully very short) book by a Japanese guy promoting the zen macrobiotic diet. His theory was that you are all san-pa-ku [I could be misspelling any or allof these words 40 years have passed] and you could tell because the irises of your eyes are wider than your open eyelids. You could be cured by following his diet of brown rice and vegitables in very small quantites. It was very popular for a short time, until a couple of people died of malnutrition.

It occured to me that the zen macrobiotic diet was not about health but about the aescetic tenets of an obscure Japanses sect. Sometimes, it was fatal, so was snakehandling among backwoods charasmatics.

The new Federal diet code is not about health, it is about the aescetic tenets of an obscure blue state sect. I do not know if it will prove to be fatal, but I am sure that it will have very few followers.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 24, 2005 2:16 PM

The article is a hoot.

When I was in college, I read a (mercifully very short) book by a Japanese guy promoting the zen macrobiotic diet. His theory was that you are all san-pa-ku [I could be misspelling any or allof these words 40 years have passed] and you could tell because the irises of your eyes are wider than your open eyelids. You could be cured by following his diet of brown rice and vegitables in very small quantites. It was very popular for a short time, until a couple of people died of malnutrition.

It occured to me that the zen macrobiotic diet was not about health but about the aescetic tenets of an obscure Japanses sect. Sometimes, it was fatal, so was snakehandling among backwoods charasmatics.

The new Federal diet code is not about health, it is about the aescetic tenets of an obscure blue state sect. I do not know if it will prove to be fatal, but I am sure that it will have very few followers.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 24, 2005 2:18 PM

The problem for me is that I am single. If I buy fresh vegetables, I will have to buy them in large packaged quantities and in order not to have to throw most of them away I will have to restrict myself to one vegetable for a few days and then another vegatable for a few days, etc. Can I just tell you that it is not going to happen!! I have no problem with vegetables so long as I am able to buy them in varied small quantities. The markets don't do that and as a result I end up with frozen most of the time.

I agree with the previous poster about how people living on the American diet have lived into their 80's for years and had food that they enjoyed. I am a firm believer in the idea of the American diet in smaller quantities. It works for me very well.

Posted by: dick at January 24, 2005 8:18 PM

I agree with you

Posted by: Paul at February 5, 2005 12:11 PM
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