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The Gospel of Food
Culinary Correctness Gone Awry
The word "enjoy" appears in the official dietary guidelines issued by the governments of Britain, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia. Norway comes right out and declares, "food and joy = health." The United States' dietary guidelines, faithful to our Puritan roots, say nothing about enjoyment.
It's high time we correct that omission. People get more out of a meal, not just emotionally, but physiologically, when the food is a pleasure to eat. In one of my favorite studies, Swedish and Thai women were fed a Thai dish that the Swedes found overly spicy. The Thai women, who liked the dish, absorbed more iron from the meal. When the researchers reversed the experiment and served hamburger, potatoes, and beans, the Swedes, who like this food, absorbed more iron. Most telling was a third variation of the experiment, in which both the Swedes and the Thais were given food that was high in nutrients but consisted of a sticky, savorless paste. In this case, neither group absorbed much iron.1
Similarly, studies of dieters find that those who regard pleasure as unimportant in their food choices enjoy their meals less and are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and exhibit symptoms of eating disorders.2
Then there's the much discussed French Paradox, the fact that the French eat a lot of what Americans believe will kill them, yet they die of heart attacks at about the same rate. The standard explanation, made famous in a 60 Minutes segment in 1991, credits wine drinking, butthere's surely more to the story. Serge Renaud, who first brought the paradox to light and runs a research institute at the National Institute of Health in Bordeaux, suggests that another part of the answer lies in the types of fat the French consume. Goose and duck fat may do for the French what olive oil does for southern Europeans, Renaud hypothesized, namely, elevate their HDL ("good cholesterol"). Gascony has the lowest rates of heart disease in France, he noted, and people there eat a fair amount of foie gras.3
As my grandmother used to say, from his mouth to God's ear. Imagine if our risk of heart disease dropped with every bite of the sautéed Moulard duck foie gras with pickled white nectarines, onions, and arugula that my wife and I feasted on at the French Laundry on a recent birthday, or the poached foie gras with a marmalade of greengage plums that I will never forget from another dinner there. More likely, any benefit to our health from Thomas Keller's wondrous cooking resulted from the happiness it brought us. Renaud's critics have appropriately pointed out that Gascons probably have other traits in common that protect them from heart attacks besides a fondness for foie gras.
One candidate is their attitude toward eating. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, organized a study in which 1,281 people in France, Japan, Belgium, and the United States were questioned about their attitudes toward food. Among the findings: the French view food as pleasure, while Americans worry about food. Asked what words they associate with chocolate cake, the French chose "celebration" and the Americans chose "guilt." Asked about heavy cream, the French selected "whipped"; Americans chose "unhealthy."4
We Americans see pleasurable and healthy eating as mutually exclusive. In a survey in 2000, Newsweek asked readers whether they consider long-term health when planning their diet. The four answers the magazine offered"yes," "not as carefully as I probably should," "I pay more attention to my weight," and "no, I enjoy life and eat what I want"show how dreary and dichotomized the American view of eating has become.
The results of the survey underscore the point. Fewer than one in four respondents selected "enjoy life."5
A Satisfaction Not Easy to Attain
We get that joyless view from nutrition writers and scientists who extol self-denial as a key to good health. "Spoil your appetite," Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, advises readers of his book on food and health. Have a snack of carrots or whole-grain wafers prior to mealtime, he recommends, so you don't eat as much at the table and risk gaining weight.
Willett's book overflows with pleasure-busting suggestions. He proposes, for example: "You may eat less if your entire meal is a chicken dish and vegetables than if you prepare several tempting dishes."
The very title of Willett's book announces that happiness is beside the point. Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, he named it.6
Willett follows in a long line of nutritional scientists who have regarded the pursuit of pleasure at the table as either immaterial to good health or downright detrimental. Writing in a popular magazine in 1902, a physician looked forward to the day when "man has conquered his palate and no longer allows it to dictate the quantity and quality of the things he swallows." In Literary Digest in 1913, a chemist went further still. "It would be a hundred times better if foods were without odor or savor, for then we should eat exactly what we needed and would feel a good deal better," he declared.7
Present-day proponents of the doctrine of naught would banish some of nature's swellest edibles from our tables. The humble potato, for instance, is "part of the perilous pathway to heart disease and diabetes," according to Willett. A baked potato may look innocent enough, but it turns to glucose, he cautions, which produces dangerous surges in blood sugar and insulin. Instead of classifying potatoes as vegetables and encouraging people to eat them, as it currently does, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should call them carbohydrates and have us consume them only occasionally, Willett maintains.8
Never mind that the potato was the principal source of sustenance in Ireland in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, providing most of the calories, protein, and vitamins that kept the peasant population alive. "Hard as is the fate of the labouring man, I think he is greatly indebted to the potato for his flow of spirits and health of body," wrote Asenath Nicholson, an American diet reformer who spent four years in Ireland in the 1840s and published her observations in a book titled Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger.9The Gospel of Food. Copyright © by Barry Glassner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.