An article on the obesity epidemic once ran in our local paper with the headline “Eat, drink, and be sorry.” Eat, drink, and be SORRY? The actual quote reads, “Eat, drink, and be merry, so that joy will accompany him in his work all the days of his life.” And herein lies the problem.
Wendell Berry said that “Eating with the fullest pleasure…is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”
In the movie Chocolat, the character says, “Listen, here’s what I think. I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny [emphasis mine] ourselves. What we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
We cannot and will not reverse the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in a culture of deprivation. Obesity is not caused by overindulgence; it is caused by malnutrition. The solution to malnutrition is to improve the nutritional value of the food you eat. It’s my patients who have helped me understand that obesity is a malnourished state perpetuated, in part, by a diet that adversely affects certain individuals more than others, and a society that assigns blame to those individuals for the effects of that diet.
If you search the term kwashiorkor, an awful disease that is caused by a severe deficiency of dietary protein, you will find images of pale, swollen, listless babies with swelling around the eyes (called periorbital edema), and large, distended bellies. Anymore, I see people who look like that everywhere. I don’t think everyone is deficient in protein, but I do think many people are deficient in SOMETHING. We all know some people who need to drink more water, and others who need more calories, remaining thin despite the fact that they always take a second helping of everything. Could it be possible that some kinds of obesity are caused by a relative deficiency of certain specific amino acids (protein building blocks) or fatty acids (fat building blocks) or phytonutrients (the sources of color in fruits and vegetables)? What might be the consequences of a low-fat diet to people whose own particular metabolisms require more?
It says a lot when people feel the need to demonstrate just how little butter or cream they actually used by squashing together their thumb and index finger. The French paradox has taught me that it’s no wonder the French, who fry their fresh eggs in butter and drink their coffee with fresh cream, have no national struggle with weight. There is no French paradox. There are only large numbers of well-meaning Americans who are utterly confused about what constitutes healthy eating.
If it’s not about depriving ourselves of the healthy pleasures of the table, then what is it about? It is about the pursuit of delicious, flavorful food, where each different food supplies a different set of building blocks for your good health. Here, for example, is an abbreviated list of places to look: strong cheeses like parmigiana, or extra sharp cheddar. Herbs and spices like basil, chili powder, cinnamon, curry, ginger, horseradish, lemon balm, mustard, and rosemary. Acid in lemon juice and balsamic vinegar, or umami in soy sauce and roasted sesame oil. Sweet flavors such as ripe strawberries, peaches, and cantaloupes, not to mention roasted root vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes. Aromatics like chives, jalapeños, scallions, and onions, caramelized if you like. Bitters like all the dark, green, leafy vegetables, of which there are dozens at least. And peanuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, wheat germ, or roasted almonds.
If you’re looking for flavor, try chopping 2 garlic cloves with 1½ tablespoons lemon zest (just the yellow peel) and ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt. Mix in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and then ¾ cup finely chopped parsley. Finally, add a can of rinsed white beans. This is called White Beans & Gremolata, and it is delicious.
Dean Ornish encourages adherents to eat with ecstasy, knowing it’s a kind of joy that will last a lifetime. Forget portion control as a first-line strategy. When you are satisfied because you’ve been well nourished with flavorful and nourishing foods, portion control gets much easier. Awareness is the first step in healing. When you connect the dots between what you do and how you feel, you become more aware of how powerfully your choices affect you, for better and for worse.
Denying yourself the pleasure of eating dooms you from the start. Eating well is not about a careful mix of fat, sugar, and salt, the hallmark of processed products described by David Kessler in The End of Overeating, that hijacks our natural ability to enjoy and appreciate and feel satisfied by real food. It is about the color, texture, temperature, and flavor of real food.
Once upon a time we understood in our bones that eating well and eating smart were one and the same. I encourage you to reclaim that knowledge.