Food as pleasure, not as medicine

January 07, 1996|By SARA ENGRAM

Cheers to Donna Shalala for standing up for common sense. At the unveiling last week of the federal government's latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the health and human services secretary defended the idea of moderation -- not an easy thing to do in the face of ardent diet vigilantes.

Just as admirable was her defense of the new recommendations which, she said, ''finally admit what many of us have known all along -- that food is not just fuel, it is one of life's great pleasures.''

Only in America

Only in America could a set of dietary guidelines produce such a flurry of interest-group lobbying, or be met with the harsh criticism of those for whom any compromise in dietary discipline seems tantamount to death. In this country, what should be one of life's great pleasures has become instead a chronic headache.

From eating disorders, the dangerous extremes of eating too much or too little, to medical evidence about the link between diet and health, to widespread worries about shedding those extra, unwelcome pounds -- there is ample evidence that food has become an obsession in this country, not a necessary and simple pleasure.

Even the press conference at which the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture presented the new guidelines provided a good illustration of food's controversy quotient, when Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, made such a fuss about the recommendations that he was asked to leave.

Mr. Jacobson's center, you may recall, is the group that has been warning us of the fatty dangers lurking in everything from movie popcorn to your favorite Chinese take-out food. Now he is voicing his displeasure that the federal government has, in his view, sold out the health of the American people by embracing any compromise in a rigorously correct diet.

Moderation? Pleasure? Bah, humbug! ''Balance, variety and moderation are the watchwords of laissez-faire, or do-nothing behavior,'' he says.

With all due respect to Mr. Jacobson's good intentions -- and, of course, to healthful eating -- I'll vote for moderation. After all, the French (hardly an abstemious people) seem to do pretty well eating and drinking in moderation.

Eating together

Americans could learn a lot from the French when it comes to eating habits. And, aside from moderation, one of the best lessons would be simply learning how to enjoy our food again -- in other words, how to have meals in which people actually sit, eat and converse with one another.

In too many American homes, mealtimes have given way to grazing periods, as family members dart in and out of the kitchen, grabbing a snack here or there. No wonder so many of us develop unhealthy habits. Who's to notice?

The new dietary guidelines are notable for a couple of changes. They acknowledge, belatedly, that a vegetarian diet can provide adequate nutrition. And despite howls from some quarters, they recognize the scientific evidence that drinking alcohol in moderation can be compatible with a healthy diet.

Science has taught us a lot about healthy eating in recent decades. We've learned the dangers of fat and cholesterol, that we can get along without meat or even dairy products, the crucial role of nutrition in a healthy pregnancy and plenty of other important tips.

But all this information brings its own burdens. Listen carefully to the promises of some of the most rigid nutrition advice and you may hear both hope and fear -- hope that by eating the right things day in and day out, you can avoid all physical ills, and fear, ultimately, of death.

Puritan instincts

The Puritan instincts and the millennial hopes harbored in our American consciences are always eager to pounce. If we know (( that certain kinds of food are linked to heart disease or cancer, then are we to blame if we develop those problems? Going one step farther, does dying become our own fault?

One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers summed up the dilemma: ''Eat right. Exercise. And die anyway.''

Paying attention to what we eat will increase the chances that we live longer and healthier lives. But the fact is, we are all going to die, even if no gram of fat ever passes our lips.

Sorry, Mr. Jacobson, but it seems to me that a life well lived is one in which moderation and pleasure play a daily role, not just in food, but in all of life.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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