Thou Shalt Not Overeat 

Resolve to quit overeating in 2001? Diet books are filled with theories on why we overindulge, and how we can cure the urge to overeat.

And on the eighth day, Adam and Eve began eating.

They ate when they were hungry, and when they were thirsty they drank whatever they desired. Nothing was bitter or unripe or too greasy. Then one day Snake slithered around Eve's neck and whispered, "I have seen the best food of all. God saves it for himself and the angels. Just peek in that building over there, the one with the apple on top."

And Eve did, and saw signs and wonders. The signs said, "Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days -- Ask Me How." Eve opened the door and entered and beheld a mirror. She looked at herself in it and said, "I shouldn't have had those two espresso shakes." And for the first time, Eve felt guilt.

And when she bellied up to the snack bar, she saw that Snake had lied -- the protein shakes and wheat grass juice and fat-free croissants were pale copies of what she was used to consuming in the Garden.

From that day forward, God's voice was no longer heard. Adam and Eve started diets and started cheating on them immediately because they were human.

Lately I've been reading diet books, many taken from my own shelves. They pose essential questions about the nature of humankind: What kind of animal are we? Are we good or bad, weak or strong of will? Has civilization -- our own creation -- refined or ruined us? Should children be reined in or emulated? Can we be trusted to follow our bliss, color our parachutes, go by instinct? What would happen if we did what was easy and natural?

The answers in the diet books may not be the best or most complete or well thought out, but they are being read by millions of people in various degrees of desperation.

Among contemporary diet books there are basically two schools of thought regarding temptation. The more interesting is what I call the "don't try to resist/follow your bliss/let yourself go" school. According to this thinking, diets don't work: Dieters naturally rebel and either don't lose weight in the first place or soon gain it back. So rather than diet you should embrace your most extravagant fantasies. Eat all the ice cream or fried chicken or chocolate pie that you want, and eventually it will become just another food, neither good nor bad, legal nor illegal. Normalize that which tempts you.

As far as I can tell, one of the first such books was Lynn Donovan's The Anti-Diet (1971), followed by Leonard Pearson et. al.'s The Psychologist's Eat-Anything Diet (1973), Susie Orbach's Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978) and Geneen Roth's Feeding the Hungry Heart (1983). Psychologist Carol Munter, co-author of Overcoming Overeating, originated compulsive- eating/anti-dieting groups for women in 1970 in New York; Orbach was a participant. After Roth read Orbach's first book, she stopped dieting.

"We believe," Orbach asserts, "that our bodies can tell us what to eat, how to have a nutritionally balanced food intake and how to lose weight."

The opposite approach is more familiar: Face the facts; rein yourself in; accept hard science. Eat less; exercise more. Simple. Use common sense.

Take control. Count calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, glasses of water. Weigh your food, write down what you plan to eat, what will get in the way of your eating what you plan to eat, what you do eat, and notes on the above. Forge new habits. Exercise 150 minutes a week. Try behavior modification, prescription drugs, portion control, meetings, insight therapy -- whatever it takes in this war against flab and your own sloth.

I misspent my Texas youth reading about diets and beauty and dating, hoping to get it all right. I sat around with friends looking through the latest school yearbook, providing critiques: This girl needed to lose 10 pounds, that one needed to wear less eyeliner. We were all malleable, could be perfected; anything was possible, just like in the before-and-after photos in the magazines we read.

The summer before eighth grade my friend A. and I went on a diet just to see what all the fuss was about. How hard could it be? We got a booklet from the grocery store. It happened to be a guide to a low-carbohydrate diet. (Yes, even in the 1960s, and for that matter, in the 1860s, there were low-carb-diet books.) I lost five pounds in a week. "But Sandi doesn't have a weight problem, does she?" a neighbor, Mrs. S., asked my mother.

Over the years, Mrs. S., purveyor of gossip and promulgator of norms, would always have a word to say about weight. As would most of the women I grew up around. Where I come from, one of America's many neighborhoods of relative privilege, the customary polite greeting has always been "You've lost weight," whether you have or not, whether you're rail thin or zaftig.

That's Yiddish for "juicy" and was once a good thing to be, a long, long time ago in a poor country.

Natural eating

Once upon a time, say the diet books, when we were in a "primitive" state, in harmony with nature, we did not have to think about dieting. We got our exercise from stalking animals and thrusting spears into their soft parts, or bending to plant and gather up the harvest, or casting nets into the bounteous oceans that did not know from persistent organochlorines.

In Eat More, Weigh Less, Dean Ornish writes: "Weighing too much is a relatively modern problem. For the prior ten thousand years or so, the major concern for humans had been finding enough food. (Food scarcity is still a problem only in certain parts of the globe.) Until this [20th] century, the typical American diet was low in animal products, fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar, and high in carbohydrates, vegetables, and fiber."

Vigorous physical activity was common.

Doctors Michael and Mary Dan Eades argue in their popular book, Protein Power, that the ancient Egyptians lived on just such a diet -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and fowl -- and suffered from worn-down teeth, severe gum disease, obesity, clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease.

Doctor Robert Atkins, another protein advocate, looks back "millions of years" to the days when humans were strong and healthy from eating fish, animals, fruits, vegetables and berries. Sugar, not fat, is the problem, he says.

Anti-dieter Lynn Donovan, dancer, singer, actress, painter, writer and Scorpio (with Virgo rising), doesn't look that far back in her book. She's found a model of prelapsarian eating right in, presumably, New York City:

"I know a little boy," she writes, "two and a half years old, who is well on his way in the project of learning to eat. We had lunch together in a coffee shop once after a shopping expedition. We both consulted the menu, and he stopped me when I read something about salad. When it was served, I let him pour on his own dressing, and he did pretty well. Then he ate the lettuce, picking pieces out one by one with his fingers. This went on for some time. Then abruptly, he spit out a leaf, one just like all the rest, and he removed it delicately to the edge of the table. His attention turned to some bacon and crackers. I was impressed. I had witnessed the precise moment of 'enough' lettuce.'"

A simplified biography:

When I was a child I ate like a child. I looked at the food set before me and either ate it or not. Afterward I went about my business.

And then my father was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes and my mother emptied the sugar bowl and warned us when we ate anything sweet, "You'll get diabetes," as if the disease were contained in the grains themselves, like a bacterium. And so, once indifferent to snacks, my sister and I began to crave them and hunt for the Wheat Thins and Triscuits and boxed chocolates that my mother had hidden from my father.

I was a tall, thin girl whose long nose was the bane of her early adolescence. When I was 16, my nose was carved down and narrowed -- the Jewish girl's scarification rite. With that taken care of, I sought another object of worry. Look down, there it was, always: my body. Self-consciousness led to dissatisfaction, to dieting, to rebelling against dieting and to weight gain.

Once I discovered feminism, I would go back and forth between "I look terrible" and "It doesn't matter how I look, the skinny ideal is part of the patriarchal conspiracy to keep women frail and boyish and worried about their hips instead of how the political and economic pie (pie!) is divided."

Lurking in the background was always the threat of diabetes, the family curse and a growing danger for my fellow Americans (half classified as overweight), who, like me, had grown rounder and softer and had become veterans of more and more diet programs and plans, spending $33 billion a year on diet products and services.

Conquering hunger with free eating

The quintessential American treat is the chocolate chip cookie, so it is only right that it figures prominently in diet books. When Geneen Roth decided to quit dieting and eat only what she liked, she made and ate dozens of chocolate chip cookies, for two whole weeks. She went on to eat lasagna, vegetables, ice cream. She gained 15 pounds then lost 30. Most for good.

By allowing herself to eat as much as she wanted -- when she was hungry -- she broke the curse. Her story is a morality tale turned on its head, a tale about how to live with abundance. Surrender to it, but keep your wits about you. Pay attention to your hungers. Embrace what you fear and triumph.

Then there is the temptation of Joan described by Peter Miller and Howard Rankin in If I'm So Smart, Why Do I Eat Like This? Joan's problem was late weeknight eating of chocolate chip cookies while she read in bed. She went through desensitization, first by sitting near the cookies for five minutes on a weekend during the day, later by placing them near the bed at night and resisting them.

Such different ways of dealing with the same temptation, and yet eerily similar. Joan learned to tame her hunger. Roth let hers loose, to learn that it was not endless.

The advocates of free eating often refer to the experiments of pediatrician Clara M. Davis. In 1926 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, Davis set about to find out whether infants could eat a broader variety of foods than widely believed. After weaning, she wondered, would babies, if given a choice of foods, choose enough to keep them healthy and free from digestive upset?

Her longest experiment followed 15 children in a Chicago nursery. Nurses offered the children food from trays three times daily. In the course of a day, they had 34 items from which to choose-- fruit, whole grains, vegetables, meats, milk, even a container of salt. All were fresh and simply prepared without sugar. The children went on eating "jags," but all 15 became healthy, vigorous and neither fat nor thin.

Davis sought to find out if babies could choose a healthy mix of foods from an array, as do adults. Now we refer to her studies to prove that if we regressed enough, we too could choose meals that were nourishing over the long haul, and spit out what disagreed. True, Davis wasn't offering, say, brownies, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie.

But Overcoming Overeating co-author Jane Hirschmann, acknowledging that Davis did not set out any sweets on the meal trays, refers to other, later studies about children choosing their own food. And these studies, by Dr. Leann Birch, support children's choice. One showed that the more mothers tried to control their preschoolers' eating, the less balanced the children's meals were.

Davis, 60 years ago, lamented the introduction of sugar and white flour into the contemporary diet. And she cast an approving look backward; the experiments "reproduced to a large extent the conditions under which primitive peoples in many parts of the world have been shown to have had scientifically sound diets and excellent nutrition," she noted in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1939.

Because we want it -- now

It's late August and four of us are walking home after dinner.

Should we stop and get coffee or go home for leftover cake and ice cream? I keep lobbying for the coffee but the others want ice cream. I confess in a whisper to my true love: I ate up most of the ice cream. In private. I didn't touch it when it was part of his public birthday ceremony. We get home and he assesses the damage. There are only a few spoonfuls left. He says to me, "What are we going to do with you?"

I weigh more than I used to, which was also more than I used to. In the past five years, as I've moved into alleged early middle age, I've gained 20 pounds. I walk a lot. I don't think I'm eating more than I did five years ago. I'm not sure if I walk less than I used to. I know I hate the gleeful feeling I get when I see the needle on the scale hit an almost unbelievable number. I'm scared that I secretly want to gain weight. I'm giddy because the sky did not fall, that I still look like a human, maybe even an average-sized human.

While I've been gaining, my mother has kept her weight the same or even lower than her wedding-day weight of 110. She wears a size six. We are so used to these numbers that we can form an image from them. For 25 years I've rebelled internally against my mother, who represents diets and fashion and conformity, and yet just a few months ago, she referred to someone who was "tall and thin like you."

The blissers urge women and men to embrace their shapes, appreciate what they are now, face the pain that makes them eat compulsively. Susie Orbach wants women to examine the ways they use fat as protection, as a way to rebel against being seen solely a sex object, as a way to deal with having too much or too little power, a way of avoiding competition, creating boundaries. According to Orbach, if you examine why you reach for what tempts, you will find that the temptation crumbles. It is something else you are reaching for.

"People are feeling more and more deprived," says Roth. "There's a direct correlation between people eating and the poverty-strickenness they feel inside." Food, she says, is the cheapest, most available substance to reach for.

Yes, and ... no. Food may be a metaphor but it also tastes good. We think about eating partly because we're not supposed to (dieting for health and vanity) and partly because we're supposed to (advertising, hunger and it's always there.) Various advisers have said that people mean to hide themselves with fat. But if there were another way to get fat -- say, by covering your body with lard and letting it seep in -- I don't think the same people would do it.

The other old line is that fat people are afraid to be sexual. But if you're thin and you really want to hide your sexiness, you can do so rather easily. We overeat and smoke, overdrink and overshop and overdope because these are pleasures in this vale of tears. Because they stop or numb anxiety, give us something to do with our hands, because they are addictive. For most people, or at least for people like me, it's easier to have no cookies than one cookie. I am grateful I don't love drink.

And yes, Americans born after World War II were raised on instantaneous gratification. We're devouring and impatient. Some of us.

According to the glib new book Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts, we shouldn't go with our instincts, we should follow "the path of most resistance." We should rise above the behavior of animals, who eat "when hungry [and] until the food is gone." The authors, economist Terry Burnham and biologist Jay Phelan, write: "Our genes have built us to love food and hate exercise; accordingly, the root of our problem is that our wild genes now live in a tame world." They place hope in drugs of the future, which will help us "outsmart" our genes. In the meantime, we have to do the outsmarting ourselves by monitoring our eating, filling up with low-fat, low-calorie foods, and preparing for weakness in times of strength. We must be like Odysseus, who had his sailors tie him to the mast of his boat before they passed the Sirens, whose bewitching song could lure men to their deaths.

Prepare for temptation. Sounds easy enough.

But whose voices are those, exactly, we hear on the horizon? A Siren's? Snake's? Eve's? Our genes'? Where is the voice of the authentic self? Who's that that's murmuring: "Because the food is there. Because it tastes good. Because we're not supposed to. Because we can have all we can eat. Because in our big country we like big portions. Because in times of inflation and weak economy we want to consume a lot of food, cheaply. Because in times of a booming economy we want to celebrate. Because we're caught in the cycle of I shouldn't want it. Because it releases tension. Because there's a new flavor. Because we're tired and need a pick-me-up. Because now we reach for a sweet instead of a Lucky. Because we talk about food and watch cooking on television like it was some new spectator sport. Because it is.

"Because there are stores devoted exclusively to chocolate. Because I'm sleepy. Because I can't sleep. Because I want my own private, fenced-in time. Because it's low-fat. Because it doesn't count if you're on vacation or standing up. Because we can take it off quickly with a liquid diet.

"Because it's on sale. Because there are free samples. Because it looks good. Because it's a birthday. Because we need protein. Because our palates went to grad school and we're gourmets now. Because we'll work it off on the machine in the basement. Because of television. Because of our mothers. Because of the old country. Because anything could happen. Because it's one thing you don't have to wait for. Because it makes us forget. Because we're only human.

Because we want it. Now."



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