The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part V

It's worth spending a little more time on this exclusive club, those who purport to have willpower and self-control in spades. This group has the current ideal relationship with food, one largely innate, that many people will do almost anything to replicate. Examining them more closely yields knowledge about what is considered the goal of the compulsive dieting and weight loss and what is valued by a society with unlimited food.

People capable of a mostly rational approach to food, and devoid of the base urges to eat, also tend to fit a general personality type. In other words, the ability to resist the cornucopia of food in the modern world appears to come with a set of inborn traits, ones for the moment considered enviable, not an iron will. The traits in question include perfectionism, inflexibility, rigidity and, at times, a tendency towards self-punishment. Not only does this kind of person thrive on delayed gratification but often has limited capacity to enjoy the food, once finally allowed, much at all. Typically, food is a repetitive even monotonous daily chore performed with limited pleasure but instead dependent on mundane ritual. This way of eating most resembles the food as a utility model. Even when offered  every possible delight, no food is a treat. Instead, the abstemious eater, completely uninterested in anything the food industry has to offer, exists outside this basic pleasure of human life. At its worst, the rigidity can lead to disordered eating or even anorexia, but the desperate overeater, after years of unsuccessful dieting, often sees this lifestyle very differently. To them, it's impossible to see abstemious eating as the door to a joyless world or an eating disorder as the horrendous and wrenching prison it is. In fact, many lifelong dieters wish all necessary food intake could come in a daily pill and want to totally eliminate meals from our existence. If the endless diet and concomitant weight loss are sacrosanct, then a life devoid of the pleasures of food isn't miserable. It's the newest ideal, perhaps the current American dream.
To learn more about the abstemious eater, it behooves the curious to ask the obvious: what do they eat? The answer isn't so obvious at all because it's a trick question. No one is going to follow a member of the club around and log their daily food intake. In fact, no one even asks what they eat. It turns out that what they eat is irrelevant; the perception of what they eat is what matters. What stops the actual inquiry is fear either of being shamed in comparison or of becoming hopeless after seeing the impossible, depressing meal plan in it's entirety. Left without any real information, the curious happen upon an answer based largely on perception: what would an extremely knowledgeable--from years of reading diet and nutrition books--dieter presume a pleasure-free eater to eat. Thus, there is no need for the idealized group to flaunt its superiority (or even mention anything about how to eat), for it's accepted without question by society as a whole. No one wonders or even cares about how unpleasant and joyless an abstemious eater's food life might be. No one cares what they actually eat. As is typically the case for an idealized group, perception trumps reality.
The fundamental perception of an abstemious eater's daily food isn't hard to figure out. A few years into chronic dieting and nutrition education, even the most optimistic dieter realizes that there is no magic solution. On reading assorted nutrition guides, from the extreme diets to the practical to the solely educational, the same information surfaces again and again: more vegetables, varied diet, fewer processed foods, whole ingredients, home-made food. The sage advice turns out to be obvious; there is nothing complicated about choosing a nutritious diet. The problem lies in the application of basic knowledge. The deeper drive to eat, especially the tasty morsels produced by the food industry, easily supplants the best intentions, thus the birth of the myth of willpower. Because nutrition education is so ineffective, most newfangled ideas simply tweak the facts enough to create a new, sure-fire, and hopefully best-selling diet. The public's insatiable appetite for an easy fix opens a market for meal plans that either subtly alter the specific amounts of the nutrition building blocks--protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, etc--as the core of success or boldly find a new culprit for failed diets and eliminate it, the dreaded carbs being the current food villain. Even if purely unsubstantiated, any new fad can become popular when nothing works. The only thing the diets have in common is food restriction, necessary for any weight loss. 
Even the most hard working, diligent dieter will forgo the diet fad and failure cycle after a time. The process is so demoralizing that the next step is usually a period of total hopelessness followed by a resurgent desire to truly understand why each diet fails. All signs first point to a lack of willpower, a myth that saves the diet industry from facing its own shortcomings by placing responsibility on the individual. It is much too easy to sidestep the fact that upwards of 95% of diets fail. The next logical step is to return to the perception of an abstemious eater's diet. After a life of education, it's clear that the answer, of course, is "healthy eating."
Ask anyone what healthy eating is and see the looks you'll get. The gist of any response is how can you not know? Isn't it a given for anyone, especially a parent, to know how and what to eat? It's one of the most basic things in life, like sleeping and walking. Like breathing! Hold on, is this a test? Are you asking if I know what healthy eating is? Really you must know what healthy eating means?
Yes, the reactions range from dumbfounded to incredulous to insulted. But what happens if you probe deeper? It turns out that although the most basic, general rules may be close to universal, once you get to specifics, the answers run the gamut. Anyone can list off the basic rules from nutrition guidelines, but they are of little help day-to-day in the real world.  Tackling the real questions is simply overwhelming. Can you eat processed sugar? When and how much? Are snacks ok for adults? For children? What kind of snacks? How much does food really need to be organic? What do you think about all of the "healthy" food labels? Do you look at or tally the nutritional information labels on food? How much carbohydrates or fat or protein is too much, or even too little? Is it necessary to monitor daily salt intake? What to do about dessert? Is having dessert every day ok? What kinds of dessert? Should dessert always lead to guilt? Is dessert always a "bad" food? Are there even good and bad foods? The questions abound and quickly exhaust even the most patient and thoughtful person. If the abstemious eater follows "healthy eating" and the food rules are endless and unanswerable and the so-called experts often support misleading or flat-out erroneous information, then can anyone actually define what healthy eating is? Or is it possible that nobody really knows how to manage the world of plentiful food? Are we all left to fend for ourselves?
Part VI next

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