By Scott Charles Anderson
Dining-out is a vice, a dissipation of spirit punished by remorse. We eat, drink and talk a little too much, abuse all our friends, belch out our literary preferences and are egged on by accomplices in the audience to acts of mental exhibitionism. Such evenings cannot fail to diminish those who take part in them. — Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Every time I go out to eat, I gain weight. Sometimes up to four pounds of (manly) bulk. Some of that is liquid refreshment. Here I am, painfully paring a pound a week through continuous application of “won’t power,” and one meal can set me back by a month?! It’s enough to make me cry, but it hasn’t been enough to keep me away from my favorite restaurants.
Now a horrifying realization is creeping over me: if I want healthy food, I’m going to have to make it myself. There are no culinary dynasties in my family. Mom was pretty good with a can opener, but Dad could burn Jello, which takes some kind of perverse skill. If I have to cook, the whole family may be doomed.
Cooking up excuses.
I’d like to think I could get away with just eating the right thing from the steakhouse menu, but it’s hopeless. Whereas I’m now attempting to satisfy my lust for lard with a miserly dribble of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, the restaurant has no qualms about slathering on the goodness. My pathetic steamed green beans pale next to the steroidal version at the German hofbrau: A dozen plump beans floating leisurely in a lake of gleaming butter. I might grill some yams with a little salad dressing brushed on; the steakhouse whips potatoes into an intoxicating mash with butter, cream, bacon, cheese and salt. I cook up some mushrooms with a little oil and sherry; the French bistro smothers them in a thick cream sauce. The sad apple I eat for dessert is totally outclassed by the cognac tiramisu at my favorite Italian hideaway.
Restaurants have no shame. They follow flavors through deadly dietary terrain, wherever they may lead, completely unafraid of the sugar traps, salt bombs, exploding carbs and fat splatters. And I love them for it. That’s what we Americans like to eat. Most of the things we love best are concocted of some combination of fat, sugar and salt. Food manufacturers and restaurants are well aware of this. Knowing what tastes good is their business.
- Fat is at the apex of caloric glut, packing nine calories into every lip-smacking gram. It makes everything from cake to steak mouthwateringly tasty. It is also implicated in chronic inflammation, which you could do without.
- Sugar used to be saved for dessert, but these days it finds its way into every damn dish on the menu, including the meat. It is delicious as it pounds the hell out your pancreas, improving your odds of getting diabetes type 2.
- Salt tastes great and makes you order more drinks, to the delight of the bartender. It also, of course, is the giver of high blood pressure and cardiac arrest.
Did I mention that these agents of death taste fantastic? Thus the bitter motto of the dead-end dieter: “If it tastes good, spit it out.”
Unbelievably, researchers say that sugar is not considered an essential nutrient! I know, I was surprised too. Apparently, people have been known to live without sugar, although “live” may be too strong a word. I’m trying to give it up myself, but if you’ve ever attempted this you know it’s not easy. Sugar makes everything, even crappy low-fat foods, go down better. Check the labels in the store. It’s alarming how much sugar has been snuck into our food over the years. If you were the cynical type, you might suspect a conspiracy between government and agriculture to hide embarrassing overflows of corn syrup.
I have refined taste
Researchers say that refined foods are part of the problem. That has a lot to do with all the damn sugar. But think about the word “refined”: basically, manufacturers take a good, healthy food and then take out all the crass fiber. The starchy flour that is left over provides the base for soft white bread, angel food cake and chewy bagels. It’s like ambrosia, the finest of the fine, the food of gods.
But the killjoy researchers complain about this, because they think fiber is good for you! How can that be? It’s indigestible! Well, to your humble human parts it is, but it’s manna for your gut bacteria. Fiber helps to feed beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Akkermansia that keep your gut in top shape. These guys are on your side, protecting your gut lining and helping it heal from damage caused by pathogens, as well as regular wear and tear. Some bacteria, such as Christensenella, are associated with thin people. Treat them well. You piss off your gut bacteria at your own risk.
Apparently, we need to eat more fiber, which sounds about as appealing as chewing on tree bark. But the fiber we’re talking about here is really just a molecular chain of sugars found in foods as disparate as onions, artichokes and asparagus. The actual fiber is less of a chew-toy and more of a gel. This kind of fiber acts as a prebiotic: a food that feeds beneficial bacteria. So yeah, eat your vegetables.
I don’t know why we eat too much of the wrong stuff, but I don’t think it’s because we’re slovenly or depraved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we’re not slovenly or depraved – I mean look at the guys in IT – I just don’t think that’s why we’re fat. My theory is that, over hundreds of millennia, humans managed to climb to the top of the food chain and pitched a tent there. Why would we give anything up? Give up fat? Give up salt and sugar? Are you out of your mind? Do you know how many centuries of civilization it took us to learn how to refine this stuff? That’s why we lionize the person who brings home the bacon, aka the bread-winner, the sugar daddy. Those phrases expose our priorities pretty neatly.
We’re going to need a bigger tent
It’s sad to admit that we may be getting too fat for our tent. Maybe we need better metaphors. Bring home the broccoli? Whole-grain bagel winner? Spinach daddy? Okay, those need a little work. But if we want to stop the obesity epidemic, we have to think of more nutritious ways to eat.
We’ve already demonstrated that we can deliver a difficult product like beef to the entire planet. In the developing world, McDonalds might be considered a miracle, delivering a rare jolt of protein for a mere pittance. But in the developed world, we abuse the privilege and gorge ourselves on plentiful meat, carbs, fat, sugar and salt. Nom, nom!
Are we beyond salvation, or can we figure out an equally efficient system to deliver healthier food? You can’t change the world overnight. It’s no use asking for less sugar or less butter. Like asking for a medium-rare steak, your request is carefully jotted down by the waiter and then promptly ignored. The kitchen doesn’t know how to do that. Just try to cut some of the salt. You can’t, because it’s already built-in to most of the prepared ingredients. Let’s not even talk about the dessert tray. Eating out is like negotiating a minefield, except the meaning of blowing up is different.
How do you fix it if you don’t know what’s broken?
A bigger problem is that we still haven’t settled on what actually constitutes a healthy diet. Is it low-fat? Probably not: that’s more likely one of the causes of the obesity epidemic, not the cure. High protein? That may be hard on the kidneys. Low carb? This one is recently garnering a lot of attention, and studies indicate that it works for many people. High fiber? From a microbe-centric point of view, that is certainly a contender. However, when it comes to the perfect diet, the vote is not unanimous and we still need more research.
Unfortunately, diet studies are notoriously difficult, expensive and time-consuming, so don’t hold your breath for a definitive answer anytime soon. Personally, I’m in favor of the banana split diet, but my doctor keeps telling me that is not a real diet. What a buzzkill. Right now, I’m just getting rid of those things that our caveman forebears wouldn’t recognize. Unfortunately, those are my favorite food groups, including sugar and processed starches. In my rare moments of honest self-assessment, I have to connect the dots between my expanding middle and my love of Cheetos and Twinkies. I hate honest self-assessment.
It’s easy to blame the food industry for our woes, but they are just giving us what we want. The problem is we want the wrong thing. We are children in a candy store, eyes agog with tempting yet dangerous treats everywhere. But there is still is a slight chance that we could change. We might realize that eating sugar and refined starch, for instance, is not what mother nature had in mind for us. And then we might demand better food. It can work: McDonalds serves salads! It’s a start…
I haven’t killed anyone yet
Most of my dieting life-changes have met with general familial approval. Home cooking is the next frontier. Luckily, spices aren’t fattening, so the diet doesn’t have to be dull. Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, Moroccan, Thai, Chinese… there’s enough variety there to keep boredom at bay. The family is tolerating the new recipes I’m cooking (although fish is still disgusting to my landlubber kids), and I haven’t killed anyone yet.
Turns out, cooking isn’t as hard as my Dad made it seem. It can actually be cheaper, even when compared to fast food joints. On the other hand, no one is too happy about skipping restaurants. For one thing, we now have dishes to wash. Nevertheless, like fully loaded baked potatoes, going out to dinner is becoming a rarity. We have found a few (mostly Mediterranean) restaurants that aren’t too fattening. But sadly, the fast-food joints will see a lot less of me.
Hopefully, there will be a lot less of me to see.
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