With the advent of 2003 comes the biggest New Year's cliché: the diet. On Jan. 1, thousands of Americans made up their minds to change their relationships to food — to quit eating sweets, lower their cholesterol, stop eating red meat, ease up on carbohydrates (the food baddie du jour), to ixnay fat or alcohol.
We get bombarded constantly with encouragement to change our bodies. Much has been written about the ways the media, in particular the fashion media, scare us into hating our bodies. That's not my gripe, although I deplore it.
I firmly believe in the wisdom of staying healthy: It seems natural and makes us feel good. But I distrust the motives for dieting: Unless someone eats "right" and exercises for enjoyment, it can be a sad, dangerous path.
Dieting is really nothing more than a mild case of anorexia. Fundamentally the impulse has less to do with being attractive or healthy than with trying to control something. We regulate eating as a means of exerting influence over the one thing we actually have power over.
And this impulse has taken on a more panicked cast since Sept. 11, 2001. More than ever we want to change something so we can feel secure and powerful when, in fact, we have never come so close to realizing how helpless we are.
In these frightening times, we're desperate to control something, anything. But what do we really want to control?
Our biggest fear is death, and much health-consciousness, as well as medical research, tries to delay or eradicate death. When planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon we understood in a visceral way that we, too, would die. That knowledge increased our nation's fear. Since then, we've lived with nightmares of our vulnerability, our mortality and our lack of control.
I have a rail-thin friend who this year decided to bulk himself up. He bought protein powders and forced himself to consume large amounts of food several times a day in order to produce more body mass. When I saw him after a long absence, he just looked pudgy and unhappy.
Another friend went on the brutally artificial Adkins diet and lost a phenomenal amount of weight — it must have been dozens of pounds. He never looked remotely overweight before, but now he's positively skeletal — gaunt hollows where cheeks used to be, clothes hang off him. He looks like he stepped out of an El Greco painting, one of the depressing ones.
This summer I read about the precision with which four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong uses food during training. He eats a meticulously calculated amount of selected foods to effect measured results in his performance. He knows his body so well that he treats it like a machine, like a coal-burning engine. This is the ultimate example of controlling your body. I bet most Americans wish we could be like Armstrong — pre-determining the result of everything we eat.
Food is doubtless one of the things about life we use deliberately. And when life is uncertain — and when was it more so? — we can become like anorexics, trying to harness the maelstrom that is our existence and force something about it to comply with our wishes.
I propose a different approach to eating in 2003. Instead of marshalling food as a tool to force changes in life that we think we need, we should make food a meditative aid. How much healthier, happier and more beautiful might we become? Dietary gurus insist on the benefits of being conscious of what and how much we eat, how food makes us feel. Since food is fuel, if we pay attention to how the fuel performs, we naturally won't overeat or eat bad things. This makes sense.
But additionally we should bring added focus to the acts of eating and drinking. The approach to food as adversary is what we must change. If we look at food as the delightful stuff that it is, if we concentrate on it and enjoy it, instead of treating it as a traitor to our hips, can't we alter something more significant about our attitude to life?
Cooking-show host and food author Nigella Lawson is someone who unabashedly takes an unscientific approach to food. Her recipes are criticized as imprecise, but her enthusiasm for the wonderfulness of eating is what make her important. Lawson is a gorgeous, curvy, healthy woman, expressive, vivacious and intelligent. She loves food. She devotes energy to it, and her example is one we would do well to note.
I know from photographic evidence that I look my best when I am smoking cigars and drinking wine and having sex every day. Isn't living life as well as we can, depending on our means, living it with lively minds and alert senses, some of the best living we can do? We can't stave off death or aging. We can't control anything — not Saddam Hussein, or our children or disease or the weather. Why try to clamp down and force our bodies to behave like lab experiments? If we pay attention to food, be thankful for eating and flavor and digestion and nutrition, we can change more than our looks. We can improve our overstressed world and look with clearer eyes at the real problems in the world that need solving. ©