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Scott Lax Blog

How Reading Can Make You Thinner and Healthier: Or, The Emperor's New Clothes are Filled with Fat, Salt and Sugar

The blogosphere, like the country, is saturated with fat. And there’s an odd paradox happening, as well. It goes something like this:

Some sophisticated writers, bloggers, hipsters, etc., are doing two conflicting things: they’re bemoaning (correctly) the widening girth of a McDonald's culture, they’re watching, and are horrified by (understandably), “Food Inc.,” and they’re ripping on (also correctly) processed foods. At the same time, though, they’re promoting and extolling the virtues of excessive salt, refined sugars, and lots and lots of fat by turning the restaurant scene into a new kind of rock show, with chefs as rock stars. At its worst, it’s a kind of in-your-face-I’ll-eat-what-I-want mentality, a rebelliousness against a baby boomer movement that unfortunately became known as “health food.” Those words, “health food,” have become the disco balls of the culinary world. So let’s banish them. Goodbye “health food,” and hello “good food.”

Months ago, because of the ridiculous fetishizing of bacon, of all things, and the retro-swooning over sugar bombs like cupcakes, I made a joke on this blog about a bacon-wrapped cupcake, which, at the time, didn’t exist. Little did I know that one of the rages in Cleveland, and I suppose, elsewhere, would become…a bacon milkshake.

This monstrosity was created by an old friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s a great guy, and recognized as one of America’s finest and most successful chefs. But, I mean… a bacon milkshake? Organic or not, it’s an arterial nightmare.

And that’s one, small example. I don’t want to take on other friends who write about the wonders of dining out and eating large, because dining out is one of life’s nice things, and there are wonderful restaurants, and Cleveland is becoming a respected food town. But I do want to make a counter-point to certain trends.

Food is out of control in much of America, partly because people simply don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies after food enters their mouths. I’m one who responds to words, but the 2006 book, YOU: ON A DIET, by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., is a book I resisted until this year. I’m terribly glad I bought it and read it, though.

As corny as the writing is, and as obvious as much of it may be to many of you, it’s nonetheless a very important book. Because for someone like me, someone who, out of stress or hurry or stupidity, packed on pounds now and again, and here and there over the decades – someone like me needed to read about what that food actually does to the human system…scientifically. It’s not written pseudo-scientifically or faddishly. It’s science. It’s about molecules, and enzymes, and our hearts and our livers and our arteries and our brains and things we don’t really want to think about when it comes to food.

I already know what bacon and milkshakes (much less bacon milkshakes) do to taste buds. They excite them; they gratify them, and our brains. Of course they do: because our systems have a built-in craving for salt and sugar and fat – these are the things we need to live, and our systems were adapted to store them as a defense against famine. But we’re not in a famine in the U.S. (Unfortunately, too many places in the world can't say that.) So too much of them – and a little goes a long, long way – can be deadly.

Yet when we get too much of these foods our bodies go into overdrive, and desperately try to process this excess. Enter metabolic syndrome. Which kills as surely as smoking, and sometimes more quickly.

I’m glad people are interested in cooking. I’m grateful to writers like my old friend Michael Ruhlman, who has inspired so many to cook at home. He, too, has done a service to eaters and readers.

But readers and eaters (I assume we're all both) should understand that moderation matters, and that we need to eat plants, and fruits, and healthy fats, like nuts and fish, and whole grains – all in larger quantities, and food that’s hard on our systems in much smaller quantities. Or no quantities.

When I started reading YOU: ON A DIET, my attitude toward food began to become more mindful – and more realistic. I’m dropping fat easily (and walking a lot, and working out, so as not to lose muscle), and plan on dropping a good deal more. (Including where you can't see it -- the subcutaneous kind). There’s nothing romantic about over-indulging. I see it everywhere; and I’ve been part of it. I want to be part of the solution now, not the problem. For me, reading was a key ingredient to nudging and changing my thinking: it helped me to understand the science behind food and what it does to us. I know…we all know these things already. But, for me, to read it…it helped. It made sense.

If you allow your taste buds to settle down and take a break from chemicals and refined sugar and loads of fat and salt, you might be surprised at how delicious certain foods can taste. Nuts, fruit, whole grains and vegetables, for example. Going a while without refined sugar or fat and salt bombs (hot dogs, bacon, cupcakes) turns an apple into the sweetest treat you can imagine, and a handful of nuts into a true pleasure.

As for the writing in YOU: ON A DIET…It’s not great literature. But that’s okay; it’s accessible to the layperson, but most important, for someone like me, the authors really explain how important, how medicinal, how vital healthy food is – and how damaging overly fatty, salty, sugary food can be. They’ve done a great service to those who read it. We need to reverse this societal trend. I’m reversing my own. No self-righteousness here: I’m in the same boat as many of you.

Now back to reading good fiction and literary nonfiction. And watching one of my new favorite shows with Lydia: “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” on ABC.

And when I get hungry while watching it, I reach for an apple or some almonds. Real food – one ingredient each- can taste great. Talk about your comfort food. Have you tried a single, fresh, juicy pear lately? Sometimes I stick I walnut or almond in each slice. It’s not boring – it’s delicious. Honest. I’ll take that over a bacon milkshake any day, and I can almost hear my arteries sigh in relief.

I don’t mean to offend my old compadres; I’m sure you’ll still have lines down the block at your restaurants. I’m likely yelling into the wind, but some Cleveland blogger has to say it: The emperor has no clothes; or rather, the emperor’s clothes are coated in fat, salt and sugar.

Have an apple, take a walk, read about how your body and food work together, and happy writing, happy eating, and happy health to you and yours.  Read More 

Weighing in on Food Writing

To make a terrible pun, I think it's time I weighed in on food writing.

There's a lot of it. It's everywhere. Writing about food - tweeting about it, blogging about it, feature writing about it, writing cookbooks, you name it: if you can eat it, you can write about it. A few million of our fellow writers are doing just that. And they have the pictures of their platings to prove it.

Honey bees are disappearing at alarming rates from around the world, which would seem to warrant more attention than bacon, cupcakes and everything else we learned was bad for us, but that the hipster culture now embraces with a fervor I haven’t seen since the Beatles landed at Idlewild Airport. And who am I to ignore a trend of that stature?

Good food writing needs to be good writing, not just writing about good food. The reason people like Michael Ruhlman get book deals and have popular blogs and go on TV to judge food contests is because people like Michael Ruhlman are good writers. Michael’s current – and perhaps it will be very long running – subjects are food, chefs, restaurants, and cooking. He’s adeptly crafted and connected two things: writing and food. Make no mistake: Michael is a devoted writer; he’s not just a cook and eater. He has written about a lot of subjects, and done so well enough to have an excellent career as an author.

I think it’s fine that there are so many blogs and articles about food. But if you’re serious about being published beyond a blog, you need to learn to write well. “Yum…cupcakes!” and “Yay…bacon!” and “…mmm…pig’s ear” aren’t going to get you book deals. Writing is very hard work, and takes practice, the same as being a great chef takes practice.

Learn to write first. Know your subject and try to write about it in ways that haven’t been done before. And while you’re at it, hipster friends, it wouldn’t kill you to eat an apple, carrot or a handful of almonds to go along with your bacon-wrapped cupcake drenched in duck fat and dipped in a bowl of sea salt and fennel.

Oh, and I highly recommend “Julie & Julia.” It’s a terrific movie, and a good example of food and excellent writing blending beautifully.

Bon appetit, and happy writing.  Read More