Hint: it’s not eating submarine sandwiches one night and a whole box of cookies the next. It is also not eating an entire bucket of fried chicken for dinner, regardless of the carb count per serving. (I really wonder what some of these food advertisers take to induce sleep every night. It must be strong.)
A delightful, delicious, easily understood, and sane diet has been developed over two decades’ time, bolstered by great bodies of research, flavored by personal experience, and published a couple of years ago by Walter C. Willett, the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School for Public health.
His credentials may make him sound like a scary read, but Willett is more than approachable. Immensely readable, gentle, clearly kind-hearted. Funny, even. And if his name sounds familiar to you, it’s because I mention him a lot in this column. He’s one of the guys working hard to redraw the food pyramid to give us all better health for generations to come.
To learn to eat well, devour every word of this book. Give it to young people you know when they leave their households. Be sure all new families receive a hard-cover copy to keep in their kitchens for all their lives together. Hand it off to old dogs who need to learn new tricks. This is the diet advice and primer we need. Here it is. One book.
Oh and the paperback version makes a great stocking stuffer. And now my family knows what they’re getting for Christmas.
You should know it’s not designed to be a weight loss book. However, if you read it and adopt the suggestions in it, you’re more likely to reach a healthy weight in a safe and satisfying way than by following the advice of most of the diet books on the shelves these days. So you won’t find this book in the diet section, unfortunately. You will have to look under nutrition at the bigger bookstores.
Because perversely the nutrition books and the diet books are not shelved anywhere near one another.
(You typically find the diet books shelved alongside the cookbooks, sending your synapses into a squealing wreck as you pass down the aisle, images of pastry and chocolate on your left, people holding out their former fat pants on your right.
But I digress.)
Willett’s book. It’s the book you need to help you sort through the nutritional half-truths that hit the airwaves in rapid fire these days. The first line of the book pretty much sets the tone and the promise to follow, “We eat to live.” And then he explains how to eat to live well. He begins with three points of governing advice that will sound familiar: get moving, find a diet that works for you, and eat defensively.
By this last bit of advice, he means for us to develop strategies for surviving a difficult environment. These strategies are not unfamiliar to lifelong dieters. They include stopping before you are stuffed, eating mindfully, cooking creatively, snacking to keep hunger under control, minimizing temptations, and remaining vigilant against the food industry’s wiley ways to sell their wares.
My favorite advice for eating defensively, and one suggestion that has permanently changed my household: Keep it simple. Like M.F.K. Fisher, another food guru I have loved for different reasons, Willett teaches us that a smorgasbord is not only not necessary, but not healthy. Offering one or two simply prepared good, whole foods per meal is plenty and will help prevent overeating.
Confused about fats, carbohydrates, proteins and their place in your diet? You won’t be after reading each detailed, readable, plain-spoken chapter on these subjects. The chapter on fruits and vegetables will change your pantry forever. You are what you drink will save your diet and maybe your kids’ diets too.
The back of the book, his section called Recipes and Menus is far more than the title suggests. It is a tutorial. A primer on how to read labels. You will learn about whole grains, which ones are good and how to cook them. Oils, which ones to cook with and when. Sugars and sugar substitutes. Sample menus, and not just recipes, but yummy food fit for busy families. Oh, yes, and sources for finding stuff you may not be able to find easily where you are. You can hand these lists over to your favorite grocers.
It’s good. And now I’m hungry for something whole.
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