Rachel Bennett

Food Rules

In Food on January 3, 2012 at 10:00

It is the third of January. Excuses have been exhausted; the hangover has dissipated and no longer provides reason enough to retreat from the cold light of day. New Year’s resolutions are many and varied but the enduring favorite, and one that compels bloated customers to sign gym memberships and purchase bucket loads of celery, is the solemn vow to lose weight. Given the highly public statistics on American obesity, this seems like a most laudable resolution. Gyms seize the opportunity and dangle cut-price deals before our eyes, diet book sales leap skywards, and for a moment the entire nation exudes determination and diet soda. And then it is over. Hungry and tired, our resolve cracks under the prospect of a nice comforting slice of pie, all sweet hot apples cradled in an eiderdown of pastry; rest-bite from a punishing regime.

Although this phenomenon is not uniquely American, we have a particular fondness for puritanical denial. Since the turn of the 20th century when farming and food processing became increasingly industrialized and calories became available in novel forms, we have been at war with food. During the early 1900s the problem of fat was confined to the wealthy who could afford these exciting new products, but as the price of food steadily declined, incomes rose, and more people shifted from physical labor to sedentary office work, the American waistline grew. Along with this industrial and corporal expansion came a fervent search for a regimen with which to tackle the bulging body. Even in the early 1900’s, when few Americans were overweight by any standard, there was a preoccupation with diet and slimming. From 1920s era Fletcherites at Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, whose particular dogma required that each mouthful be chewed 100 times before swallowing, to the carnivorous followers of Dr. Atkins in the 1990s, Americans jump at any program that promises success. No matter how eccentric the requirements—cabbage soup, grapefruit, or steak, we’ll give it a whirl.

And yet we’re fatter than ever. This fact has been widely studied in recent years (see Eric Schlosser or Michael Pollan for acute and lively explorations of the phenomenon) and I’m not going down that rabbit hole today. However, like most people I feel rather toxic by January and the temptation to swear off alcohol, sugar, meat, or cheese—better yet all four—is great. New year’s resolutions die hard. And yet I have learned through long and bitter experience that denial doesn’t work. Ever. At least not for anyone with an ounce of spirit and rebellion in their blood. So for anyone else haunted by the bloated ghost of Christmas past, here is my sage advice: Do not banish; include. Do not eschew white bread; but include a daily dose of whole grains. Do not swear off sugary desserts after dinner; but include a slab of good pitch-dark chocolate. You may gain a taste for nutty brown bread or antioxidant-rich cacao. Better still, it’s a happier, more generous approach to a new year. Remember Scrooge.


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