Omnivore - Lunch conversation: all about fat

I lunched today at Anis with my friend Brad, as we do just about every week. Brad just returned from a two-week visit with his mother in Los Angeles. He ended up spending a great deal of time there in the bed with a bad case of the flu. Brad, a serious foodie and heart attack survivor, tends to be the optimistic sort and he was quick to identify the flu's silver lining: "I lost seven pounds!"

So now, he says, he's on a "serious diet." He ate a salmon salad while I ate roasted chicken and devoured the basket of bread. "It's the carbs that can make you fat," he said. "Thank you, Dr. Atkins," I muttered to myself.

Brad is reading the latest anti-carb text, Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories (reviewed in the New York Times here). Taubes maintains that the widely held beliefs about the relationship between eating and health, including obesity, are mainly based on very flimsy science. He aims to correct it, but he's ended up being accused of some scientific hocus-pocus himself because of some significant studies he's ignored.

Brad is also reading Michael Pollan's new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Pollan, whom I regard as the most important food writer in the country, is well known for his articles in the New York Times and his first book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Like Taubes, he exposes the weakness of nutritional science — including our obsession with healthy eating while we get fatter and fatter. He's also well known for exposing the politics of food production and regulation.

The reality of how unhealthy our diet has become was anecdotally well documented in a recent article in the Times about obesity among food bloggers, food journalists and chefs, whom author Kim Severson has nicknamed the "Fat Pack." She writes:

“I do find it irresponsible that they have done nothing to address health issues,” Jason Perlow said of eGullet, which he left in 2006 after a dispute with another of the site’s founders, Steven Shaw.

“The whole foodie lifestyle and diet I used to participate in — I’m not going to say it is unhealthy, but it is excessive,” he said. “I think you can still keep the food very interesting, but do it in moderation. That’s what the food community of the future is going to have to be.”

To which many members of the Fat Pack say: Shut up and pass the pork butt. Among a certain slice of the food-possessed, to suggest that indulgence might put one’s health in peril is to invite ridicule.

Without using the word, Severson documents the widespread denial among foodies, who can get enormously fat and blame their genetics rather than their diets. For example:

Mr. Shaw said he believes the genetic component of weight and health matter more than moderation and exercise. Although his father died from heart disease, he thinks that the state of medical knowledge on the relationship of diet to health changes so frequently that it can’t be trusted.

Some of his views about diet and health border on the extreme. “I think the whole diabetes thing is a major hoax,” he said. “They are overdiagnosing it.”

As denial implodes with the diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease, more foodies are taking up the subject of health in their blogs, according to Severson, which undoubtedly helps explain, too, the growing prominence of writers like Taubes and Pollan.

As for my own experience with this, it's been unpleasant. Years ago, besides writing the Grazing column, I also wrote a monthly column for Georgia Trend that required me to eat all over the state, do a (detestable) weekly gig on WGST Radio and write occasional dining features for other magazines. Even though I continued to go to the gym daily, I gained about 30 lbs. Believe me, there's a point where no matter how much weight you lift in the gym, it won't counteract lifting a fork constantly. Nor will cardio do any good without a change in diet.

By cutting out the other gigs and paying more attention to my diet, I took off most of the extra weight, but it remains a battle. A huge meal like the one I ate Wednesday night at the Glenwood demands extra cardio and significant calorie restriction the following day. So tonight, it will be salad. Or maybe I'll get the flu.

VAGUELY RELATED: Speaking of Anis, the restaurant's owner, Arnaud Michel, and his wife Dawn are the parents of a third child, born last Sunday. Theo Philippe Michel weighed in at 8 lbs. 13 oz.

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