Salt and fat does a body ight or wrong? Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

 

I’m on the road all week so I am reposting this, in light of the new governmental recommendations on what we should and should not eat. The Times article noted in the post, interestingly, is from almost exactly two years ago.

—M.R.

Originally Posted March 14, 2013

I’d have thought that an article in last Sunday’s New York Times MagazineEat Your Heart Out by Gretchen Reynolds, would have made me happy. I’ve long argued that America’s terror of fat and salt is misguided and blown grossly out of proportion. But all the piece did was make me mad.

It notes a study that found that men with heart disease who reduced their intake of meat and saturated fats and increased the polyunsaturated fats in their diet were more likely to die of a heart attack than the control group who maintained their customary diet. It noted the existence of a “small but unsettling body of data suggesting that consuming polyunsaturated oils … may … increase your risk of heart disease.” (There’s lots of hemming and hawing in the piece due to the contrarian nature of it, thus the ellipses; the Times even took it off their magazine page and threw it back into the blogs category, but I have the hard copy on my desk–the quotation is from the third paragraph.)

America doesn’t have an obesity problem, or a food problem, or a Big-Gulp-forcing-Mayor-Bloomberg-to-put-on-his-cape problem (though the fattest state in the country just passed a food anti-regulation bill lest they lose their right to ethereal sugar-laden gulps on that express train to diabetes land).

What America has is a living problem. America seems to think that the answer to how to eat can be found on the news, from studies, from your doctor (who’s reading the same reports you are and following the same party line now being contradicted by that “small body of unsettling data”), not even from your mayor.

The data that matters to me is the data I receive after I’ve finished eating something. Do I feel good after eating a roast chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes and a pile of shaved sautéed Brussels sprouts? Yes. How about after I eat a bag of Cheetos? Not so good. What does that mean? Think about it. Think. Do you feel good after you exercise? Yes, because it’s good for you. Or you can hunt for data on the Internets if you want The Truth. Go ahead, read up on it. Or watch all the “a new study finds” stories on the ABC Nightly News.

Part of the problem is our obsession with longevity rather than quality of life. Why can’t we become obsessed with good rather than long? Sure I’d prefer 90 healthy years to 75 healthy years. But do I want 75 healthy years followed by 5 years of mental and physical decline, followed by 10 years of increasing dementia that puts a strain on my family?

As Sherwin Nuland notes in his superb book How We Die, and as Julian Barnes underscores in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, death is life’s single certainty, but the manner of our death, short of killing ourselves, cannot be known or predetermined. Your manner of death is very likely to parallel the death of one of your relatives—in my case, and in order, heart attack, stroke, stomach cancer, 96 years (my maternal grandmother’s final decade spent in increasing darkness from untreated glaucoma, solitude, and depression, her mind sharp as when she was 30), and most recently the heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer—due to decades of Luckies, what a name—that awaited my beloved dad, dead weeks before his three-score-and-ten. That’s right, it’s going to be genetics and environment (food and exercise, or lack thereof) that get you. And there’s not a whole lot Mayor Bloomberg can do to help you, I’m sorry to say.

Me, if I have a really good meal, al fresco, say, followed by an espresso and an eau de vie and someone offers me a cigarette? I’m going to have it. I love a cigarette. What a pleasure with, say, a grappa overlooking the harbor of Portofino on my 49th birthday. Damn, that was a good cigarette. But I have no intention of addicting myself again, because that will give me the lung cancer and emphysema that killed my dad. I’d sooner eat straight sugar than drink a regular Coke, but am I going to forgo duck confit and bacon so that I can eke out 90 years? Are you kidding me? Shoot me now.

I’m sorry, I just get so goddam sick of studies and data telling me how to live, reading about this or that new diet that’s going to take pounds off my body and add countless Sound of Music years to my life. My hunch is that people don’t actually want to live longer—I think people want to be happier, to be more at ease with who they are, to feel glad when they wake up rather than dreadful, to feel good at the end of the day instead of crummy. The South Beach diet is not going to do this for you. Show me the data on how to be happy and I’ll listen. That’s what people are after and they can’t get their fingers on it. It’s not in a damned diet book, that’s for sure. It’s more likely in a pot of minestrone simmering on the stove.

Me I’m going to enjoy the pleasures and bounty that are available, and recommend anyone still reading do the same. For me, it’s Donna and my family, good simple food, wine and spirits, stories, work that I care about. Do I want to lay eyes on a grandchild carrying my DNA? One day, of course, but that’s not up to me. What is up to me is the way I live my life and the great good fortune that I live in a country that allows me to make my own choices.

If you liked this post, you might be interested in these links:

© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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18 Wonderful responses to “Cook Your Own Food. Eat What You Want.”

  • Daniel Aguera

    I believe there’s much truth in your philosophy. I was raised in Spain and the food culture would have to change a lot to be what I grew up with. But, the joy and understanding on how and when you eat your food has much to do with your healthy relationship to food.
    Buen Provecho!

  • Adrian

    I lived the philosophy in the subject line. I cooked all my own food and ate what I wanted. Where did it get me? Fifty pounds over weight at age 30. Why? Because what I wanted was dessert. And I made it all the time and ate it constantly. And I always felt just fine…until it finally caught up with me.

    Me? I needed a different approach. I wonder, sometimes, about the people who think things are so simple—have they ever had any struggles over their relationship with food?

    • W. Keith Griffith (Grif)

      Agree with Adrian, in this case I think Michael is a bit simplistic in his assessment of our physical ability to “taste” what is good for us vs taste what was necessary for survival when every spare gram of protein or fat was insurance against lean hunting or injury recovery. (speaking of a simplistic, one dimensional comment, i’m guilty as charged).

      Wife gave me a Teeshirt for Christmas from another author.

      “…it’s a little more complicated than that…” Ben Goldacre “Bad Science”.

  • Erika

    ABSOLUTELY!! I’m with you, Michael. I’d like to live GOOD years, and not many years. It took me a long time to find the love of my life and I want time with him. And as someone who has had food issues my entire life, I just want to be happy and not mired in all the quag surrounding food, thrust on us by the media. Bravo!!

  • Tereza Snyder

    For me it took a straight-on encounter with diabetes to make the change that resulted in the loss of almost 100 pounds. I too was one who cooked all her own food and ate all she wanted of it, and what I wanted was pasta. One decision – no more pasta – made the difference. Ultimately, the answer is learn to WANT SOMETHING ELSE: want less fat, want less meat, want more vegetables, want more whole grains. Cook it and eat it because you want it.

  • witloof

    I was also someone who cooked mostly at home from scratch and yet was quite overweight. What I wanted was pasta with tons of butter and cheese, yogurt, potatoes with sour cream, homemade pies and cakes. Five months ago I started following a diet that eliminates meat, farmed fish, dairy, gluten and all refined grains, sugar and all sweeteners, peanuts, corn, alcohol and oil except for olive. Any proteins, grains or potatoes must be eaten with twice as much fruit/ veg. Now if I make pasta, it’s made out of black beans or brown rice, and served with a vegan sauce. Let me tell you it wasn’t easy the first few weeks! But I have gone down four sizes, have no more joint pain, and so much energy. Today I ran up a steep hill to catch a bus that was half a block away and got there before it did without getting winded. A woman at the bus stop watched me running and freaked out when she saw me close up and realized I wasn’t a teenager!

  • JW

    Mr. Ruhlman, it’s easy for you to say we should all just accept our fates and eat what we want. Many paths do not lead to certain, quick oblivion. One disease that has skyrocketed right alongside obesity wrecks entire families after it empties their wills and bank accounts: Alzheimer’s.

    People who willfully slide towards the grave with their dietary habits do not just risk their own lives, but the well-beings of their families.

    This point can be generalized beyond dementia: metabolic diseases now affect every American; they are so endemic that nearly everyone has a friend or family member who suffers. This too takes a toll on us.

    The reality is that the government’s sin was in giving the wrong advice, 180 degrees wrong. Nutrition, whether you like to believe it, is a real thing; there are first principles. The diseases you list as eventual morbidities hardly existed for most traditional societies before they began eating the kinds of foods we eat. And that the government recommends we eat for 65-70% of our diets.

    Nina Teicholz details all this in her book. Instead of preaching on this blog to us, how about reading it thoroughly and coming back with an informed opinion?

  • Tom | Tall Clover Farm

    I am feeling the Ruhlman love, just made your pan-fried chicken thighs (with a little pan gravy) and now after reading this, without a lick of guilt. Just checked out your book: A Memoir. Look forward to a good read.

  • Allen

    Reading the comments, I find a lot of good information from healthier people that don’t eat what they want.
    Some things need regulation – sugar seems to be the evil culprit, regardless if it’s from carbohydrates, alcohol or sugary snacks – you crave more.
    I do not believe in eliminating it 100%, the occasional sweet after a fine meal on a special occasion is a good thing.
    The Friday cocktail is a good thing.

    Moderation.
    Wishing you all good health, moderation, love and happiness. Cheers,

  • B

    The critical question is not what to eat, or when, or who should prepare it, or how much; rather, what matters is who should make these decisions. Ruhlman says the eater gets to decide; Bittman says someone other than the eater gets to decide.
    Happiness fundamentally comes not from good food, nor from health themselves, but from pursuing these goods as one sees fit. Realizatiin of responsibility, if independence feels better than any food tastes and any disease hurts.

  • hng23

    I’m with you, Michael. I have always eaten whatever I wanted & have never been overweight–because I eat everything IN MODERATION (Also, I hate the chemical taste of junk food, so stay away from it).

  • Mrs. Renard

    I’m a little late with this comment, but I am so glad you have been bringing up health/food topics lately.

    We tend to put an awful lot of faith in the latest study (and it is faith, because not a one of us actually reads these studies with a skeptical eye).

    One article that really shed light on how very wrong so the interpretation of medical research tends to be appeared in the Atlantic in 2010.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/308269/

    “Ioannidis’s” … “known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies­conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain­is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. ”

    Most medical research studies are not double-blind placebo-controlled, lack accounting for confounding variables and conclude causation where only correlation exists.

    As such, we should be tremendously wary of coercive policy (like Bloomberg’s famous soft drink rules and Berkeley’s more recent soda tax) in the name of the common good backed by questionable interpretations of tenuous medical research. In the end, such measures are really more about imposing some morality, countering the perceived hedonist sin of fat/sugar/salt.

    • W. Keith Griffith (Grif)

      You’ve just gotta read “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre,,, or at the very least watch his two TED talks.

  • Jason Kratz

    I think some folks here lost the point of this article, me being one of them until I read it again. The title, some are implying, is misleading. Ruhlman isn’t saying to eat tons of whatever you want (sugar, fat). He’s saying don’t give up anything and make sure what you’re eating is good food. Eat what you want doesn’t equate to eat lots of whatever you want. I think we can all agree that American portions of food are far too large and I’d be what’s on Ruhlman’s plate most of the time matches the French idea of portion size more than the American one.

  • Dwayne Wenger

    I couldn’t agree more with the article. A little over 2 years ago I was obese. It crept up on me over a 10 year+ period. I joined WW Online and started paying attention to what I was eating. Since then I started cooking my own food, don’t touch fast food, watch the sweets. I’ve dropped 80 pound over 11 months and have kept it off. I haven’t stayed on WW but have maintained just by being aware and striving to create the best food possible when I eat.