HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

A Nutritional Moratorium for the Holidays

Christmas is the time for moratoriums, when soldiers put down their guns, settling in for a few days (well, maybe just hours) of yuletide cheer, dehydrated fruitcake and grog. In that respite from grenades, comrades can enjoy each other's company, before a post-holiday grenade blows one or both of their heads off. In warfare, the moratoriums, whether for Christmas, Yom Kippur or Ramadan, remind everybody that most warriors, left to their own devices, would prefer smoking a few cigarettes (or maybe joints) to blowing somebody's head off. The troops need more than a bit of organized prodding to be effectively bellicose. The only regret about moratoriums is that they are so short -- that the people who call them aren't smoking a few joints themselves, forgetting to call an end to the truce.

In this holiday where war looms not-so-distantly, I propose a long holiday moratorium on the nutritional blather that the people-who-care-about us are spewing forth. In the name of creme brulee, I propose that the "experts" stop telling us what is good for us, what is bad for us, what we should gobble up, what we should shun.

For the past decade the nutritional enemy has been shifting. First, fat was bad for you, with some kinds (who reads the labels?) especially awful. Then sugar was the enemy: Too much of it would make you not just plump, but hyperactive. Then carbohydrates were the demon, making all of us plump and plumper. Now the old enemy is the new friend: fat is good. At least the Atkins people have sort of proved its benefits, in a fat-funded trial at a medical center desperate for funds. We should be eating more fat, not less. Our weight will plummet. Ditto our cholesterol, especially our "bad" cholesterol. We should shun pasta. It is a bit like the global re-alignment of enemies and friends, where rogue-nations morph into allies, and allies into evil combatants.

And just as in realpolitik, the nutritional enemy is not obvious. Whole wheat flour is in; white flour, out. So some pastas and breads might be OK -- even good for us. We should read the micro-text ingredients. Fats too are not identical, dividing into "good" and "bad." It is a bit like the NATO peace-keepers in Bosnia, who struggled to tell what side a soldier was on, without interrogating him. Everybody looked alike: The search for the "enemy" demanded keen discernment. In this nutritional war, we are all ploughing down supermarket aisles, poring over labels.

The years of nutritional edicts have left us, the civilians, weary and confused. Dining has turned into an occasion for research. Food, no longer a treat-to-be-savored, is a regimen-to-be-followed. Every hostess, every waiter recognizes the "medicinal eaters," who are searching for the entrees, like plain noodles with steamed vegetables, that bear a "heart-healthy" imprimatur. Yet even the imprimaturs vary with the expert: red wine, nuts, eggs, milk -- each has proponents and opponents.

Most critically, the expertise has made us guilty. The statistics on obesity show that few Americans have given up the foods they love -&endash; but we have been downing our creme brulees, bacon-and-eggs, and doughnuts with hefty doses of guilt. Every time I pick ice cream over low-fat yogurt, I wonder whether I have a Freudian death-wish. Why do I choose cherry garcia even when experts have told me I may be shortening my life with every spoonful of caloric yumminess? Has gluttony warped my brain?

So for this holiday season let the experts declare a moratorium on wisdom. The stuffed turkey (with safeguards against salmonella), the eggnog (with pasteurized eggs, another salmonella safeguard), the candied yams, even the suet-laden plum pudding beckon.

And, in the spirit of the holiday, let the powers-that-be everywhere, sated on wonderful meals and wine, plot a course towards a peace that will let the warriors return permanently home, to their families and their feasts.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I.

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