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Jewish World Review March 21, 2000 /14 Adar II, 5760 , 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Consumer Reports



Not so glorious food --
THE DEBATE was heated, the participants sometimes angry. The session was standing room only, and the press was out in force. It was not a presidential debate but something nearer to most Americans' hearts: diets.

The participants were Dr. Robert Atkins, author of the famous book trashing carbohydrates; Dr. Dean Ornish, godfather of the radical reduction in fat school (the tofu and broccoli diet); and a number of other special pleaders, nutrition experts and physicians.

Barry Sears, inventor (discoverer?) of "The Zone" offered his scheme, followed by Dr. Morrison Bethea, author of "The Sugar Busters" diet. Atkins -- whose high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet has roared back into fashion after a generation gathering dust -- was chastised by several fellow panelists, but hey, the jury's out. Sure he recommends eating all the meat, cheese, nuts, eggs and butter you want -- but if you lose weight, your blood cholesterol is likely to drop despite those fat-saturated snacks.

Still, isn't it odd that the Department of Agriculture sponsored this event? Isn't the consensus among nutritionists and physicians that "diets don't work"?

Well, unless they are followed by a total change in living habits. Any fool can figure out that if you lose weight on Sugar Busters, Atkins, Stillman, Beverly Hills, grapefruit, white food (have you heard of that one?) or any other diet, you will resume your previous shape within a few weeks or months if you return to previous habits.

But people love to believe in magic, which is why diet doctors own a reliable percentage of the national wealth. And the regimes do work. The secret is, that no matter what they claim, they all work the same way: by reducing total calories.

Half of the American population, according to some measures, is overweight. A third is obese. As Dr. John McDougal, a vegetarian diet doctor, pointed out at the Department of Agriculture meeting: "What you see worldwide is that in countries where people eat high-carbohydrate diets -- Africa, the Middle East, the Far East -- they're trim, and they have low rates of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer. And when they move to the United States and Western Europe ... they get fat and sick."

That's telling em! But in America, we really do make it difficult for people to do the right thing. Invitations to excess are everywhere.

But I'm on a diet!
When I was a child, it was a treat to go out for an ice cream cone. Some chose to add sprinkles. Now, ice cream alone is not enough. We jam it full of M&Ms, Reese's Pieces and (ugh) gummy worms. And those "low-fat" options like "light ice cream" and "frozen yogurt"? Ha! Traps for the unwary. They often have almost as many calories as the real thing -- and calories count!

Restaurants have been steadily increasing portion sizes to the point where a small elephant would be satisfied with the fare at most chains. Want to order a simple sandwich that isn't deep fried, larded with bacon or swimming in melted cheese? Good luck. A beer used to be 12 ounces. Now it is commonly 24. And the desserts simply cannot get decadent enough. Chocolate cake? What's that? The usual listing on a menu is now something like "Chocolate, peanut-butter delight with Oreo cookie topping." Or, more honest, "Death by Chocolate." The Great American Lunch -- a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke -- probably contains more calories than most people need for an entire day and enough fat to last a week.

America is the land of plenty. Unfortunately, that often means plenty of garbage. We are encouraged to gratify our taste buds all day long -- in front of the television, at the movies, walking down the street, even in the middle of the night (who invented the midnight snack?).

Nowhere is the American obsession with food and its sad consequences more obvious than in the supermarket check-out line. Aliens (and they are no strangers to checkout lines) glancing at magazine covers would conclude that we are the most pitiful, credulous creatures in the universe. "Dream your pounds away," proclaims one. "The New Cappuccino Surprise Cake," announces another.

Yes, excess is as American as apple pie. But you can't order apple pie anymore. It's deep dish, caramel-coated apple torte with a double portion of ice cream. We are getting gross.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate