Fighting What You Eat: The Diet Cong

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – I have a client, a wealthy woman in her 60s, who has celiac disease. This means gluten – a primary protein in anything involving wheat flour as well as a few other foods – makes her ill by disrupting her intestine’s ability to process not just gluten but anything she eats. It’s a serious disease although its effects are mild in some people. I cater three or four dinner parties for her every summer and those meals must not only be gluten-free but indistinguishably gluten free. In other words, it should never occur to anyone eating it – even a nutritionist – that the meal specifically avoids bread, pasta, couscous (a form of pasta), cakes, and similar dishes. She has good cause for being suspicious of food.

At one time I had another client who claimed she was allergic to MSG, but she relished dishes including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, steaks, and mushrooms – all of which have relatively-high levels of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG). She was clearly mistaken about her “allergy,” but she avoided Chinese restaurants.

I’ve had many clients who were on weight-loss diets such as South Beach, Ornish, and Mediterranean. I’ve done high protein/low-carb, carb-intensive/low fat, and mostly veggies with lots of olive oil. As a rule I charge clients more for cooking to a diet book because of the extra effort involved in adhering to an essentially arbitrary set of rules. I’ve never been asked to do a bacon or butter diet, but that’s my dream – I might offer a discount in that case.

I’ve been on several diets myself including some of the famous ones and lost 50 pounds once and 80 pounds twice. My conclusion is that most of them are either hog-wash or they’re thinly disguised versions of the standard advice: eat less and exercise more. If you want pasta, eat pasta, but less of it. If you want bacon, eat bacon, but don’t eat it often. Think of your body as a machine and adapt your energy input to your energy output. This is basic science, verified over 100s of years. But the current funky diet “theory” isn’t even “theory” in the scientific sense – it’s a guess based on hopeful correlations, if that.

Matching caloric input to output always works and it’s generally healthy if you’re careful to eat a balanced diet. But it requires discipline – not only while you’re losing weight but after you’ve lost it. It’s that last bit that’s the real kicker.

After striving for six months or a year to lose weight and succeeding you’re naturally going to begin eating more – after all, you don’t want to keep losing weight. But to relax the discipline just some is incredibly hard. That first brownie in six months tastes even better than you remembered and stopping at Burger King this once won’t hurt. Which is why the standard advice is best: don’t try to lose weight, change your fundamental eating habits.

Yeah. Right. But we eat the way we do because it gives us pleasure and it does so because we’ve evolved to derive pleasure from eating: all animals have. We have taste buds so we can distinguish good food from bad food. Specifically we have chemical receptors on our tongues that detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory flavors (the savory taste, by the way is – literally – MSG). Tastes combined with our sense of smell provide us with a highly nuanced means of finding calories and nutrients while avoiding poisons. This evolution continues. At one time most humans lost the ability to digest lactose by the time they were two or three years old and, today, most Asians still lack this ability. But beginning about 10,000 years ago some groups of humans began evolving the ability to digest lactose on into adulthood so most Caucasians like milk – and cheese! – and most Asians don’t.

Then there’s the whole issue of socialization, some of which is cultural and some of which is individual. For example, at one time the Japanese referred to Koreans as “garlic-eaters,” a term of opprobriation because the Japanese didn’t think civilized people ate garlic. On a personal level, some people think I’m nuts for liking Humboldt Fog, a butt-ugly but fairly mild cheese. However, my parents taught me there are 1,000s of excellent cheeses all worth trying while others never offered their kids anything more complex than Kraft Singles.

That’s why most diet ideas are at best nonsense and at worst harmful; we’ve evolved biologically, culturally, and personally to like food and particularly to like those foods with the highest number of calories so for many of us, losing weight is hard and keeping it off is far harder. We’re fighting a guerilla war against our own bodies and if our bodies win the war our bodies lose the war.

We would like to think that simply exercising our will is sufficient just as our government thought that simply bringing greater resources to bear against the Viet Cong was sufficient and would win that war. But just as the Viet Cong owned and understood the territory in Vietnam, our biology owns and understands our bodies – our willpower is a Johnny-come-lately in this contest. Which is why I’m not sure the diet war is any more winnable than that more traditional conflict 60 years ago was.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.


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