Fat Guy says eat up and shut up

Food is unhealthy only if you stress over it.

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It's the Fat Guy's favorite time of year again. At holiday time, the average American gains between one and 10 pounds -- and I gain 15. It's when people eat real food, salty and rich with animal fats, and drink to excess. And, sadly, it's when you can't get through a single meal without some neurotic idiot nervously commenting that "This meal is a heart attack on a plate!"

The new national pastime is feeling guilty about food. We've all heard the
same lame jokes: "I'm going to schedule a quadruple bypass for right after
dinner!" "I can feel my arteries hardening as I eat!" "I better go see my
cardiologist tomorrow!" Everybody chuckles, but does anybody really think it's appropriate to joke about heart disease at the table, or anywhere else?
(How about sitting next to a guy on an airplane who says, "Gee, I hope some suicidal Egyptian doesn't crash us!" Likewise, I've never seen a comedian kick off a monologue with a few chemotherapy jokes -- and I've seen some pretty bad comedians.)

Still, the average citizen is merely parroting the message that is repeated constantly on television and is trumpeted by just about every newspaper and family physician in America: Fat is bad for you. No, the true villains
are the media and the medical establishment, who will not rest until they
have deprived America of its basic ability to receive pleasure from
food; until, like the Grinch, they have stolen the joy from Christmas dinner

These guardians of national health are flabbergasted that Americans gain so
much weight at holiday time. But what really worries me is that some people
don't gain any. After all, it's winter. It's cold. The days are shorter and we spend more time indoors. We're supposed to gain weight. Yet I occasionally run across proud people who proclaim that, through rigorous monitoring of every bite of food consumed during December, they suffered no weight gain at all over the holidays. What miserable dining companions they must be.

Luckily, we have reason to believe that the joke is on them, thanks to some
groundbreaking research by my new best friend, Dr. Paul Rozin of the
University of Pennsylvania. Rozin, a psychology professor, has just
completed a major cross-cultural study of food attitudes among more than
1,000 Americans, French, Belgians and Japanese. His research shows that,
while the French overall associate eating with pleasure, Americans worry
about food and associate it primarily with nutrition (the Belgians and
Japanese come out statistically in the middle).

"There is a sense among many Americans that food is as much a poison as it
is a nutrient, and that eating is almost as dangerous as not eating," says
Rozin. For example, Americans are so freaked out about food that, when asked if they would be willing to give up eating altogether in favor of a pill
that could fulfill all their nutritional needs, 26 percent said yes. This number
actually strikes me as a little low, and would probably be higher if the
cheese steak and Tastycake-loving population of Pennsylvania (the source of
the U.S. data) were replaced with, say, the residents of Los Angeles. In any
event, it was double the percentage of French.

In addition, Rozin notes, "Americans try to categorize foods as good or bad,
healthy or unhealthy. A third of Americans believe that salt and fat are
toxic, like mercury. But most foods, salt and fat included, are healthy in
moderation and become unhealthy only when consumed in excess. The French seem to have a better understanding of this notion of balance." And, Rozin suggests, France's attitude toward food may in part explain the superior health of the French.

Just about everybody has heard of the "French paradox," although most people incorrectly think it has something to do with red wine. But the French
paradox properly defined is that, while only four percent of French people eat diets that meet U.S. nutritional guidelines, and while the French overall have higher levels of serum cholesterol than Americans, the incidence of heart disease in France is 33 percent lower than in America.

Not to be outdone by a real scientist, I spent the past month conducting a
little psychological study of my own. This November, I dined in groups
of three or more people on 14 occasions (both at home and in restaurants).
On 13 occasions, people made one or more comments connecting the
food with heart disease (22 comments in all). In 11 cases, there were also
comments about weight gain resulting from those meals (15 total comments). And one of those meals (three comments total) was at a vegetarian health food restaurant.

At only one group meal were there no comments about food and health. You guessed it, my dinner companions were French. After this six-course meal, gloriously free of food neuroses, I was almost ready to forgive the French for denying us their airspace during the Libya bombing, although perhaps not for their complicity in the Holocaust.

"The simple truth is that fat is delicious," says Edward Behr, my other best
friend and author of
The Art of Eating quarterly newsletter. "Most of the flavor of meat comes from fat, and fat
enriches the flavor of most any food. Fat carries flavor and feels luscious
in the mouth. It's even delicious in certain raw forms, like olive
oil and butter."

It is in this regard that I respectfully submit that Chanukah is a superior
holiday to Christmas. I make this claim not just because I'm Jewish, and not
because of the clear numerical advantage of eight dinners over one
(although I'm hoping that the full-blown celebration of all 12 days of
Christmas will someday make a comeback among my gentile friends, and that they'll invite me). Rather, I believe the preeminence of Chanukah derives
from its cuisine. Chanukah is frequently called the festival of lights, but
it could more accurately be described as a festival of fat. Technically, the
miracle of Chanukah was that, while the Jews celebrated victory over the
latest group of anti-Semites who had tried to kill them (in this instance,
the Greeks), the one-day supply of oil in the temple's menorah lasted for
eight. As a result, we who celebrate Chanukah are required by Jewish law and
tradition to eat foods that are rich in oil. Potato latkes (pancakes) are
the best-known example, but my favorite traditional Chanukah item is
sufganiyot (little deep-fried jelly doughnuts).

Speaking of things Jewish, in the movie "Sleeper," Woody Allen plays a man who, after years in cryogenic freeze, awakens in a future where superior science has established that cigarettes and chocolate are good for you and that foods thought to be healthy in the 20th century are actually carcinogenic. But truth is stranger than fiction, and the last decade of the millennium has seen numerous flip-flops in the definition of healthy food. For my mother's generation, going on a diet meant eating lots of hard-boiled eggs and whole-milk cottage cheese. Today, these items are forbidden. The latest studies indicate that butter may be less dangerous than margarine, regular coffee may be less dangerous than decaf and proteins may be better than carbohydrates. The highly touted "Mediterranean diet" is losing its appeal now that we know Northern Europeans, who eat substantially more fat than Southern Europeans, live longer. Can a major study detailing the secret health benefits of fat be far behind?

It's no wonder that, as Rozin puts it, "Every bite, for some people, is
fraught with conflict." Exaggerated reporting of specious epidemiological
studies (which only show correlations and do not offer explanations) has
made us into a nation of hysterics. "This availability of information has
not been accompanied by education of the public on risks and benefits, basic
concepts of probability, and on the gradual and rocky road, in science, from
ignorance to knowledge," he argues. "This has led, at least among Americans,
to frequent new concerns about particular dietary items, and has promoted
tendencies to ignore it all, or to overreact to it all, or to develop
simplifying heuristics which take the uncertainty out of every bite."

But here's one thing we do know: Stress is unhealthy. The studies showing
links between stress and poor health are legion -- Rozin will be happy to show you hundreds. And, as he concludes, "It is not unreasonable to assume that when a major aspect of life becomes stressful and a source of substantial
worry as opposed to a pleasure, effects might be seen in both
cardiovascular and immune systems."

So the next time you find yourself face-to-face with a plate of creamy,
salty, buttery mashed potatoes, enjoy them. Even better, ask for seconds.
Your life may depend on it.

By Steven A. Shaw

Steven A. Shaw is a New York food critic.

MORE FROM Steven A. Shaw

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Christmas Health