I consider this weekend a food-for-thought extravaganza. It encapsulates two holidays that focus, in very different ways, on our appetites.
For those of us who observe the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, we begin fasting Friday at sundown and break our fast Saturday evening. During that time we are supposed to forgo food, drink and other bodily pleasures and use the time for prayer or reflection. (I get a lot out of this reflective time, but some of it inevitably becomes a rueful meditation on how much caffeine means to me.)
Then, because Yom Kippur coincides with Thanksgiving this year, on Sunday or Monday many of us will load our tables with turkey and trimmings and express our gratitude, some of it to roasted roots, garlic mash and gravy. Thanksgiving is a wonderful, happy holiday – no presents required, and the smells of fabulous harvest bounty wafting toward us.
So is this not a perfect time to talk about food, fat and punishment? It's on our minds, after all. We eat, therefore we wallow, first in delight, but then sometimes in guilt, frustration and despair, not only about the weekend bloat-fest but our ongoing tortuous relationship with food.
Collectively, and in many cases individually, we are losing the battle against obesity. The most alarming statistics say that almost half of Canadian adults and about a third of our children weigh too much. Public policy makers are busy busy busy helping us to make better choices. There is now healthier cafeteria food mandated in Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia schools, including, in some, a ban on soft drinks, candy and fried fatty food – a move I applaud, because we shouldn't be enabling kids to eat this stuff.
However, there is also the Danish fat tax, which David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister, has said he thinks is a jolly good idea: On Oct. 1, consumers in Denmark started paying a hefty tax per kilo on butter, cheese and other fatty food. The cost of pork fat apparently went through the roof.
I suppose this could work because it makes peoples' wallets leaner. But couldn't you just, say, eat two whole chickens and a loaf of bread and put on the pounds that way? So forget about taxing us more. Willpower isn't hard to legislate, it's impossible.
Unlike alcohol and drugs, classifying food as an addiction (and punishing us for eating too much of the wrong kind) is problematic. We need food to survive. And yet everyone from Oprah to attendees at Weight Watchers meetings falls back on the addiction model to describe why a butter tart held them hostage.
Social historians may well record this period of history as one in which humanity was the most deeply conflicted about food – the portion of humanity, that is, with an abundance of it. Much of the world is starving, and poverty levels are shamefully rising in our own country.
But in the land of supposed plenty there is a never-ending onslaught of food stories – which foods will make you fat, what diet will make you slim, alongside the relentless high-low food porn: mouth-watering restaurant reviews and trendy recipes on the one hand, fried butter on a stick at fall fairs on the other.
There is also the yo-yo moralizing between accepting that our bodies shouldn't have to be perfect, the recognition that obsessing about thinness can lead to eating disorders (remember the phrase "fat is a feminist issue"?), and the more punitive idea that overweight people are taxing the health-care system, that we are heading toward what one British newspaper called "the obesity time bomb."
Friends sheepishly regale me with their diet woes and triumphs. One pal confessed she had bought The Dukan Diet, the bestselling book by French doctor Pierre Dukan reputed to be the get-thin bible for Kate, her sister Pippa and their mother Carole Middleton. My friend instantly lost at least five pounds eating nothing, and I mean nothing, but steak and other protein for almost a week. I borrowed the book and nearly threw it across the room when Dr. Dukan airily advised taking only cold showers because they use up more calories. If that isn't punitive, I don't know what is. Shiver away, folks.
Another friend and I have made a pact to get fitter together, by tracking our food intake. Tracking – keeping a daily diary of everything that goes into your mouth – is a very effective tool. You make better choices when you know you have to write them down. Or at least most of the time you do. (Is "steakfrites" one or two words?)
But tracking isn't going to make you fitter without moving your body. And as a society we have pretty well bottomed out (I use the term advisedly) in this regard. Bound to our computers and other fab devices (rest in peace, Steve Jobs), we can get through a day making no large motor movements. Just sitting and clicking; clicking and thinking.
A dancer friend tells me that the e-book is bad for our bodies: "When we pick up a real book, especially from a shelf or a table, we use the muscles in our backs and shoulders." I love my e-reader but it's true, I'm now using even less muscle power to devour the books I love.
All the public education about healthy eating is not in vain, so long as we understand it is still up to us to change, to move more and eat less. I will be thinking about that Saturday as I stay hungry, and Monday, as I get full.