I’ll never forget my first breakfast in Germany while waitressing over the summer, years ago, for a student work-exchange program: hot white bread rolls slathered in thick layers of butter and Nutella, washed down with whole milk and sugar mixed into coffee so strong that a second cup literally broke me into a sweat.
We also had full-fat yogurt with muesli mixed into it. You couldn’t even find full-fat yogurt in America, being as convinced of the evils of dietary fat as we were at the time.
Having just lost twenty pounds on a hardcore low-fat diet myself, I panicked at the prospect of endless spreadable meats and cheeses. But with nary an artificial sweetener or low-fat product in sight, I figured I’d have to suck it up and eat like a German.
I dove headlong into a sausage-and-potato lifestyle, taking walks in the Black Forest every day in hopes of mitigating the consequences. When I was later shocked to return home and find out I hadn’t gained an ounce, I figured daily exercise must’ve done the trick. What else could explain it?
Years later, when the anti-fat philosophy shifted anti-carb, I was haunted by my childhood trips to France every time I bit into another sad little cheeseburger wrapped in lettuce leaves. Like so many others, I jumped on board the low-carb craze, even though I knew damn well that French people eat fluffy croissants and buttered baguettes every morning.
Yet somehow, the French are still much thinner than we are.
Like so many other Americans, I keep fighting the obesity demons lurking just outside my door by doing whatever diet researchers tell me. This means I’ve been on a huge array of diets, because diet researchers can’t seem to keep their stories straight.
We’re supposed to take personal responsibility for our health, they keep telling us, but that’s tough to do when the game keeps changing. As soon as we’ve thrown out our butter and replaced our milk, cheese, and salad dressings with low-fat versions, we’re suddenly hearing simple carbs are the problem.
Oh, did we say simple carbs? Nah, we meant the glycemic
index load. Fats are good, but definitely avoid saturated fat. Wait… we meant trans-fats, because saturated fats aren’t as bad as we thought.
The truth is that it’s impossible to simultaneously follow all of the crazy-making nutritional advice we hear. You can’t avoid all sugars, starches, fats, carbs, meat, eggs, gluten, dairy, soy, and processed foods without starving to death. You can’t be vegan and eat like a caveman at the same time.
Sometimes I suspect these diets only work because they make our food less palatable, so we end up eating less of it. Salads and pasta don’t taste as good without creamy toppings. Digging into steaks and butter is fantastic during the honeymoon phase of low-carbing, but gets monotonous after a bit. Eventually, all you want is a cracker.
Yet we Americans keep scrambling to follow this week’s nutritional guidelines and currently, the idea of whole foods is all the rage. More important than counting calories, we are told, is eating fresh, unprocessed food.”Real” food, without sugar.
Then along comes this bombshell study from Cornell University showing that skinny people actually drink more soda and eat more junk food than the overweight. Kinda busts a gaping hole in the idea that you can eat whatever you want as long as it’s nutritious, right?
Dangerous studies like these leave me about a hair’s breadth away from chucking my morning kale shake in favor of little powdered doughnuts. Because in all honesty, who wouldn’t rather dip powdered doughnuts in coffee than choke down a bunch of kale?
And who wants to suffer years in bitter self-denial when it’s all begun to feel like a crapshoot, anyway?
But then, Giant Buzzkill Faye Flam comes along and makes a reasonable argument rebutting the latest research. Since overweight people may be reacting to their health problems by reducing junk food, she points out, it doesn’t mean junk food didn’t cause their problems in the first place. Believing that would be like thinking salt causes low blood pressure because hypertensives go on low-sodium diets.
On the other hand, we’ve got Jeff Wilser’s experiment in eating nothing BUT junk food for an entire month. After chowing down on Oreos, M&M’s and pretzels for thirty days, he was amazed to find not only his weight plummeting, but also his cholesterol readings improving.
Jeff’s experiment reminds me of Morgan Spurlock’s disastrous thirty-day fast-food binge in Supersize Me, with one major difference: whereas Morgan made a point of eating more calories than he normally would, Jeff followed the servings sizes on junk food packaging (though he allowed himself “cheat” days, where he binged).
So does it all really come down to calories in vs calories out? Maybe.
I suspect, in the end, that portion control is the root of our problems. Fifty years ago, before the American obesity epidemic hit, we didn’t have this dazzling array of low-fat and gluten-free products, but our portion sizes were drastically smaller.
Apparently, today’s Happy Meal at McDonalds would’ve been considered an adult-sized portion back then.
And we’ve been conditioned to think of ridiculous portion sizes as normal. Since Americans believe a good deal means getting more for your money, restaurants have responded to market demand with an exploding portion-size arms race over the past several decades.
In short, portion sizes have gotten huge and we’re used to them. We’ve been conditioned to think anything less than a massive amount of food means we’re getting ripped off, while simultaneously assuming that whatever entree we’re served represents a “normal” meal.
My takeaway? Just eat less, but maybe don’t stress so much about the nutritional makeup of every last morsel. We have nutritional needs that go beyond the number on your scale, so it’s not a great idea to live off sodas and Twizzlers. But maybe a little bit won’t hurt .
So, if you really want that cookie, go ahead and eat that cookie.
Just not the whole box.