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"Quiet Diet" mind matters
October 29, 2002

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There is no such thing as a quiet diet.

Whether it's salad dressing in the purses or nonfat milk in cappuccino, people don't keep it to themselves. It's impossible for someone on a diet not to talk about it. Of all the choices we make for ourselves, what is it about food habits that makes us scream and shout?

I joined Weight Watchers two years ago, lost 35 pounds, quit. I stuck the congratulatory magnet to my refrigerator. Since then I've regained 10 pounds but have held steady for eight months. People want to know my secrets, so I tell them. Joyfully, I can't stop. I explain the mathematics behind the Point System. I share my knowledge about fiber and carbohydrates. If I tell you I know several tricks to healthy eating or eating less, you might wonder what they are.

There's always a danger food, and it changes with the times. The first danger food I remember was sugar, which supposedly rotted your teeth. (Not true.) After that came sodium, and "MSG" entered our dictionaries. Soon we would concern ourselves with chemicals, from artificial flavors to pesticides. Then came fat content, and the distinction between saturated and unsaturated fats. Chemicals gave way to genetically altered foods. Today we're increasing our attention on carbohydrates. (Yup, we're back to sugar again.) There have been savior foods too, from apples to popcorn. For the latest threats and recommendations, pick up any issue of any women's magazine.

Meanwhile, more cooking books are published annually than books on any other subject. In fact, about half of all published titles are cookbooks. Doesn't that sound obsessive? Food consumption is a huge business. Emeril entertained us so deeply with his cooking show that a television sitcom developed around him. Eating disorders are a familiar part of our culture.

It can't be helped. We bond over our feelings and experiences with food. Why?

Eating food is one of the most personal things we can do for ourselves, physically as well as emotionally. We reward and punish ourselves with food. Eating is a manifestation of our self-image. Whatever we might think or feel, there's an associated food or drink, or a related eating behavior. Consider what we can learn about people by inspecting their pantries and freezers, desk drawers and purses. When someone in the office puts a bowl of candy in a public space, there's a whole spectrum of individualized responses, from pleasure and pride to anger and angst.

Food is the common outlet to who we are as individuals, and we can demonstrate our food habits because it's safer than demonstrating our psyche. We expose our busy lifestyles by carrying granola bars, but we apologize for ourselves by carrying bran. Needy people admit a weakness for chocolate, and control freaks want dressing on the side. (I can hear you rebelling already. Why is that?) We chase diets and danger foods to keep up with the Joneses. And there are so many rules: eating on a first date, serving at a party, asking for seconds.

No wonder we talk about food! It's our way of talking about ourselves. It's easier than verbalizing our problems, or drawing attention to our egos. Do you pick at a plate with your fingers? Do you pour the crumbs into your mouth? We expose ourselves with food. When we eat we point directly to our heads, vulnerable with our mouths wide open.

We are what we eat. We are how we eat, too.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin

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