You Can’t Eat That


Amber Helsel

It's almost taboo these days to simply enjoy food. Everyone is health-conscious, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. We could all stand to eat a few more vegetables and less fried food. Striving to be healthy is a great idea until people start making you feel bad for liking food.

The idea that you can't enjoy yourself when you eat is part of our culture now. You must graze like a sheep. You must only eat for the nutrients. You can't simply take pleasure in the hamburger, or even that salad, you're chewing on right now.

Food is either our worst enemy or our greatest friend. It's such a wonderful and terrible thing that many of us won't be rational about eating. Instead, we go to extremes: We eat way too much and hate ourselves, or we eat like rabbits and pretend we enjoy being woodland creatures. The idea of eating "on purpose" is so intoxicating that we can't just be normal and just —I don't know—eat.

A new dietary phenomenon, called the French Paradox, isn't really a diet in the sense most of us think of diets—a proscribed eating plan—although people have written books outlining one, such as "French Women Don't Get Fat" by Mereille Guiliano (Vintage, 2007, $16) and "The French Diet: Why French Women Don't Get Fat" by Michel Montignac (DK Adult, 2005, $3.89 on Amazon). The paradox lies in observations of how the French eat and how they perceive food: The French eat fatty foods, such as bread and at almost every meal, but they have a lower obesity rate than the United States and other European countries. Much of it has to do with how they regard food. French people understand the beauty of a balanced diet, but they don't frown on eating breads and cakes and are no strangers to using fat. They want to eat those things, and they do. Even some people who visit France remark that they eat crazily unhealthy things on their trip, but they still lose weight.

Part of why this happens is the small French portions—much smaller than the gargantuan, super-sized, all-you-can-eat American portions. And, whereas Americans may eat a lot of food in a short amount of time, French people linger over food. They can take three hours to eat just one meal. They savor every bite and don't get distracted as much, while we Americans tend to turn on the TV, play computer or cell-phone games, and text at mealtimes.

The takeaway from the French Paradox is that the key to enjoying food is learning to savor the moments—to really appreciate meals, even that peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich you made because you were too lazy to cook.

Part of our inability to enjoy food flows from a wake of negativity in our increasingly health-conscious world. New diet plans pop up like daisies every day, and at an alarmingly faster and faster pace. Diets are spinning out of control and, in some ways, they're getting more and more ridiculous. You hear about some of these new diets—the air diet, oddly enough a French diet plan, requires you to prepare food, put it up to your mouth and then just breathe the meal in. You can't actually eat it. The French magazine "Grazia" dubbed the diet "L'Air Fooding" in their story on it in 2010.

Some people latch on to dieting, and then try to tell you how to live your life. Don't eat sugar, they'll say. It's loaded with calories (even though, like everything else, it's OK in moderation). Don't eat potatoes—they're too starchy (even though, as long as you cook them without a lot of extra stuff, they're fairly beneficial and provide sustained energy). Don't eat bread—it has too many carbs (even though you need carbohydrates to live and work and play). Sometimes it seems like every diet on the planet makes you feel like you can't have fun.

It's that sort of negativity about food that makes people who diet think they can't enjoy themselves. That sort of negativity makes us feel crappy about anything we eat, even a small slice of birthday cake. You're human. You need that cake sometimes. Chocolate does give you endorphins. Pizza does taste like heaven.

We shouldn't diet, anyway—not in the way Americans think of that word. We should be aware of our daily food intake, but that should make us better, not kill the joy of food. I'm not saying we should fill our diets with nothing but bread, pastries and French fries, and I'm not advocating ignoring doctors' warnings about the dangers of an unhealthy diet. But we should stop going from one extreme to the other.

Food has a happy medium. Enjoy what you eat.


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