If only every day could be like Thanksgiving, when people settle down for a big feast with enthusiasm and joy, momentarily forgetting they are afraid of carbs, gluten, red meat and GMOs.
We have become a nation of people who worry endlessly about food. Food fear is understandable for people with legitimate food allergies and serious medical conditions but not for thousands of other individuals who are shunning certain foods or whole food groups in the belief it will make them healthier or skinnier. Many are basing their food aversions on an inability to think critically about scientific evidence or just bum advice.
A cartoon in the New Yorker shows two witches stirring a liquid in a black kettle. One witch says: “This person weʻre trying to poison — does he have any dietary restrictions?” Even witches have to take into account food fears.
My friend Laurie Carlson calls todayʻs vilification of certain foods “the list of fear and loathing.” Laurie has been following food trends since she was the manager of Kokua Market Natural Foods in the 1970s.
At this time of year, magazine features are appearing with such celebration-wrecking titles as “How to Host a Thanksgiving Dinner When Everyone has a Dietary Restriction.”
A recent article by nutritionists Joannie Dobbs and Alan Tichenal laid out ways to accommodate Thanksgiving guests who find holiday meals “stressful.” The two UH nutrition professors said they are talking about people with real food restrictions, but also individuals who are attracted to eating styles that label certain food groups “bad” such as the carbohydrate-fearing Paleo dieters or meat-averse vegans.
Dobbs and Tichenal say with understatement that such phobias “can complicate eating for both guests and hosts.”
Some of Dobbs and Tichenalʻs “12 Ways To De-stress Your Holiday Cooking” include having “individually wrapped lactase enzyme caplets available to allow you to offer milk-based desserts such as ice cream or cheesecake to lactose intolerant guests.”
Or at a buffet table “make tags to indicate which dishes meet certain ingredient criteria or have a notebook available with lists of ingredients for each of the items being served.”
Talk about stressful — not for the eater but the host!
Dobbs said they were inspired to write the tips because they believe Thanksgiving should be a time of good feelings for everyone. She says it’s easier to accommodate guests’ food restrictions real or imagined than to try to talk anyone out of them “because they are as strong as religion.”
Dobbs and Titchenal are omnivores who follow their own sensible eating habits on Thanksgiving and every day of the year. Dobbs says “eat a little of everything but not too much of anything. The key is variety.”
Aaron F. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana School of Medicine, says there is no need to try to “eat clean.”
“By fretting about food, we turn occasions for comfort and joy into sources of fear and anxiety,” he says. “And when we avoid certain foods, we usually compensate by consuming too much of others.”
Carroll is the author of a book that sounds worth reading by its title alone: “The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully.”
Food shunners are often motivated to consider certain foods scary by what they understand to be the latest science or pseudo science. But Carroll says a closer look at the so-called research behind the food fears shows that many of the most “sinful foods” are actually fine for us.
Consider gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. I mention gluten because it is the latest vilified item on what Laurie Carlson calls “the list of fear and loathing.” Fewer than 1 percent of people in the U.S. need to avoid gluten. They are the ones who have celiac disease, which causes inflammation of the small intestine, preventing the absorption of nutrients.
But about one out of every five Americans today shuns gluten even though they don’t have celiac disease. They believe eating gluten products like bread and dinner rolls makes them feel bloated. They say gluten is “bad” for their health.
But a recent long-term scientific study shows the opposite. A 26-year-long study of more than 100,000 men and women published in BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, concluded that a gluten-free diet may do more harm than good by removing an important protection against the number one killer in America — heart disease.
Lead author Benjamin Lebwohl of Columbia University says “gluten restriction has no benefit, at least in terms of heart health for people without celiac disease. It may actually be harmful to follow a diet that is particularly low in whole grains because those grains appear to protect against heart disease.”
Eating a gluten-free diet can lead to deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamin B, folate and iron. Companies are making millions of dollars from the sales of gluten-free products but the benefits of some of the breads and pastries are questionable.
Physician Aaron Carroll says: “Compared with regular bagels, gluten-free ones can have a quarter more calories, two and a half times the fat, half the fiber and twice the sugar. They also cost more.”
Many who have not a trace of celiac disease say they still must avoid gluten because of a catchall condition called “gluten sensitivity,” but Carroll says “gluten sensitivity” is not well defined and many people who diagnose themselves as suffering from it donʻt meet the criteria.
The list of so-called “bad foods” goes on and on.
“When one panic-du-jour wanes, we find another focus for our fears,” says Carroll. “We demonized fats. Then cholesterol. Then meat.”
But its helpful to remember that the myths that once surrounded many panic-du-jour foods have since been debunked.
Eggs, once shunned because they were thought to increase levels of cholesterol, are now recommended as part of a healthy diet because of the protein and vitamins they provide.
Dobbs and Tichenal explain that even though eggs contain significant amounts of cholesterol, decades of research had shown that most people can eat eggs without significantly increasing their blood cholesterol levels.
And red meat and salt and butter. Nothing wrong with them in reasonable amounts. Nutritionists say thereʻs no need to give them up entirely.
I applaud the attitude of the late Julia Child who, when questioned about her lavish use of butter, said “if you are afraid of butter use cream,” and her advice on sensible eating: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
If there is anything to be afraid of it is the current fear of food. It is time to return to the joys of eating in moderation but as Julia Child would say, not too much moderation.
And to remember a final word from Julia on deprivation-focused eating: “The only time to eat diet food is when you are waiting for the steak to cook.”