All those holiday celebrations are finally out of the way, so let’s hole up, draw the blinds against the dark winter sky and settle in for a season of deprivation. Er, wait. I meant to say: Let’s kick off the new year right by resolving to eat healthy! It’ll radically transform the way we feel! It’ll fix everything we hate about ourselves! Everything!
Because you know what that one guru said that one time: Even world peace is just around the corner; it’s just a matter of having the willpower to find that corner. So, open your copy of “The Personalized How Not to Die Clever Gut Longevity Super Metabolism Spice Diet Cookbook,” and turn to Page —
Wait, what’s that? You’re feeling dejected because you already fell off your diet? You’re working through the guilt of a rotting crisper drawer? Hey, you — the smug one still rocking a juice cleanse: You’re on edge about screwing it up, aren’t you?
Let’s slam the book on this whole diet thing right now.
That one mentioned above isn’t a real cookbook anyway. It’s six. But who’s counting? It’s a mashup of a few titles published between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31 — some destined, like so many diet cookbooks before them, to rise on the national best-seller list, driven by this country’s insatiable quest to eat its way to perfection.
This is a long-standing obsession and one that’s uniquely American. Just ask Helen Zoe Veit, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University and author of “Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century.”
As she explains it, about 100 years ago, two major technological advances (the advent of nutrition science and the industrialization of food) coincided with the rise of modern weight-loss culture. While these revolutions were influencing the world, in the United States, it became something of a moral imperative that mothers be educated to feed their children properly.
“In America, there was this unique emphasis on rejecting what your mother or your grandmother may have told you. That was not real wisdom. Those were sort of superstitious beliefs about food, and real wisdom came from experts,” Veit said in a phone interview.
“God forbid you follow your instinct because that’s the worst possible guide when it comes to food — that’s the message,” she continued. “You should be following experts, but you also have to be educated enough not to be duped.”
These attitudes, this willingness to upend generations of tradition, gave rise to the food fad.
Veit speculates that Americans’ weakness for the promise of a quick food fix may stem from their remarkable mobility — both as immigrants and as domestic migrants within the nation’s sprawling borders. It also may be a means to assert independence and control.
“The idea that there’s been some new discovery or revelation, often it’s scientific, sometimes it’s sort of spiritual,” Veit said, “that how you were doing things was wrong, and you’ve got to do things in quite a different way, and that will produce great results for you: I don’t know of any other country in the world where that sort of relationship to food is as common or as mainstream as it is in America.”
So even if we come by our food pathologies honestly, here’s the thing to keep in mind: We already know what we need to do to eat better.
Forget the noise of the latest dietary study. Linda Van Horn, chief of nutrition in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, broke it down pretty succinctly: Make vegetables, fruits and whole grains your priority.
The healthier you eat, the easier it will become to eat healthy. Van Horn said researchers are just starting to understand the scientific underpinnings that explain why cravings typically ebb as consumption decreases.
“I can’t tell you how many of our (study) participants say, ‘What I’m finding is, the less sugar I eat, the less sugar I want,” she said. “You can say the same thing about a burger or anything.
“The bottom line is: Everybody knows what they should be eating, and if you’re not eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains, you’re denying yourself of the very thing that would help you turn away from some of those other foods.”
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and author of “The Superfood Swap,” offered these tips for improving your eating habits.
Eat three balanced meals a day: A balanced meal means a small portion of whole grains, a small portion of lean protein, and a lot of vegetables, with a touch of fat added for taste. Supplement with up to two snacks, depending on how hungry you are. Does it sound difficult to plan this many meals? Find healthy meals you love, and repeat them regularly.
Stop and look at your plate. Consider: Do I have enough vegetables on my plate? Is that sandwich big? Am I eating more today than I did yesterday?
Eat your meals seated at a table. Don’t stand at the counter or eat while working. Consume food mindfully.