By Maren Tarro
—Strict diet adherents have made appearances at our family gatherings, backyard barbeques and on the pages of the New York Times. Whether vegan, raw, calorie restricted or paleo, these culinary insurrectionists have the nerve to call into question mom’s meatloaf and eating for eating’s sake. They quote scientific studies and recite food factoids more at home in the liner notes of a Moby album than your carefully laid out dinner table. Yet where few dare to criticize food choices based on religious or other personal reasons, poking fun at vegans or those caveman paleo folks seems to be fair game.
What and how we eat are sensitive subjects so intrinsic to personal, social and cultural identity that a mere smirk across the dinner table regarding one’s opting for a second (or third) serving of bacon can lead to scenes normally reserved for daytime talk shows. And nothing feeds the fire of dietary debate more than someone who opts to take what they put in their mouth and deign it to be not a simple menu ordering, but a whole lifestyle.
Andrea Feucht, long-distance runner and author of Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings, first sought out a new approach to eating as a way to improve performance on grueling ultra-marathons. She turned to calorie restriction, a diet that calls for lowering caloric intake—sometimes drastically—and focuses on optimizing nutritional value of those limited calories. Says Feucht, “Mid-2000s, I became more diligent in training and also felt like I could stand to lose some ‘fluff.’ In comes calorie restriction, out goes 15 pounds, and only then did I start reading the science. I became friends with a bunch of the CR folks and even went to a conference of theirs, but hovered outside of the full-adoption periphery because true calorie restriction directly conflicts with performance. They influenced me in the correct ‘read the science’ direction, however.’”
Reading the science eventually lead Feucht to embrace a “real food” way of eating that promotes eating foods in their original forms. But she admits it wasn’t always easy: “I didn’t want to jump on it fully because, hello, no more non-dairy creamer! No more Girl Scout cookies! No more anything processed and fun … I lived twin food lives between reveling in greasy spoon pancakes and doing nutrient research on a few sites I discovered, namely whfoods.com and nutritiondata.com.”
Changing dietary choices for physical reasons is something most can accept. Scott Jurek, also an ultra-marathon runner, published Eat and Run, which credited his vegan diet with his ability to break records and survive runs through Death Valley. Running publications and websites exploded with discussions as to how and why eliminating animal products could beef up sports ability. But what was largely absent from the discourse was the emotional response triggered by telling someone that what they’re eating is not only less than ideal but dangerous.
When Mark Bittman opined about dairy abstinence on his New York Times blog, the reaction was swift and impassioned—indeed, readers cried over spilled milk. Commenters accused him of “vilifying” the dairy industry and speaking too broadly about a product near and dear to American hearts. That Bittman’s claims of dairy being nutritionally unnecessary as a source of calcium and vitamin D would irk so many suggests we place an equal, if not greater, emphasis on the emotional needs our diets satisfy than the physical needs. This is also evident in our separation of foods into “comfort” and “health” categories: Kale feeds the body while gravy feeds the soul.
Denver Westword Café Society writer Jennifer Wohletz touches on our sentimental approach to eating and even celebrates it. Her view, while often tongue-in-cheek, is expressed in wistful tributes to fast-food offerings of yore such as “Five Discontinued Fast-Food Items I Want Back” and in verse dedicated to mystery meat. Her take on people who subscribe to restrictive diets? “They are impatient and want instant results,” she says, and then asks, “Is baked brie considered a lifestyle diet?”
Of course we all know there are consequences to what we eat. Trans fats are now unwelcome in even our most junky foods, organic food consumption is on the rise and consumer demand results in restaurants offering healthier choices. But we have a long way to go before heart-healthy is viewed as more vital than heartbreak when it comes to passing on our favorite foods.