Thursday, March 18, 2010

No Food Like Diet Food

As I’ve said before, I’m spending my spring trying to move from humungous to pleasingly plump. A lot of this effort revolves around my treadmill, but I’m also trying to “eat healthy,” which means removing a lot of the ingredients that make food worth tasting. I’m also reading a lot of diet books, not necessarily to get recipes (many of which induce shudders) but to get myself in the right frame of mind for my quest. However, the more diet books I read, the more convinced I become that diet experts have no idea of what food tastes like.

The most common claim you run into in these books is the idea that you can drop some regrettably fattening food from your diet and never notice the change. Substitute fat-free cheese for the real thing, they say blithely. You’ll save mucho calories and you’ll never know the difference. Now look—I love to cook, and I’m actually fairly good at it. That means I know what real cheese tastes like—sharp cheddars, nutty gruyere, tangy manchego, creamy camembert. Spread on a cracker or a slice of crusty baguette. Eaten as a square with a chunk of apple or pear. I know what that tastes like, and trust me, when you substitute fat-free cheese, you do know the difference.

If the “never-know-the-difference” thing doesn’t work, the diet food guys go for the purity card. Green beans, they say, taste ever so much better with just a squeeze of lemon juice rather than all that fattening butter or bacon. Dress your lettuce with a splash of balsamic vinegar and skip the olive oil. And don’t even get them started on the font of all evil, ranch dressing. Or blue cheese. All you have to do is get used to it, they say, and you’ll never want to go back.

All of this reminds me of the time the San Antonio Express-News sent their nutritionist to dine at Paesanos. Now everybody in San Antonio knows Paesanos, an Italian restaurant that originated in the San Antonio World’s Fair in 1968. And everybody knows their crowning achievement: shrimp Paesano. Their shrimp is rolled in bread crumbs then sautéed in butter and finally lapped in the most exquisite lemon butter sauce I have ever had on my tongue. When my younger son was ten, he said of shrimp Paesano, “This is the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.” So the Express-News nutritionist ordered shrimp Paesano. And the Express-News nutritionist hated it. All that butter. All those crumbs. Didn’t they know that the average person wanted to taste the “natural” flavor of the shrimp—just boiled with just a splash of lemon juice, not covered in some lemon butter sauce? How, she moaned, could anybody eat this stuff?

It was then that I came to understand the basic requirement for any true diet expert—they have to have their taste buds surgically removed.

Nobody is saying you should eat shrimp Paesano every day, unless you can afford a staff to roll you downhill every morning. Obviously, it’s event food that you eat once or maybe twice a year. But pretending that it doesn’t taste great is just pathetic. It’s also the kind of thing that makes people distrust diet gurus. So let’s all agree that butter and cream and bacon and sugar are yummy. And let’s all agree that eating too much of them is going to make you balloon up like that kid in Willie Wonka. Part of “eating healthy” is knowing how to pace yourself.

Sigh. Nonfat cottage cheese anyone?

So what do you say? What do you miss most on your diet? And what kind of diet food have you found that keeps you from whimpering softly?


Erin Nicholas said...

Meg, let's go to dinner sometime! You're a woman after my own heart! The food I refuse to budge on is salad dressing. I WILL NOT eat low fat, low cal, low anything salad dressing. Oh, and not a big fan of diet soda. I just drink soda less often so I can have the real thing--- nothing like a *real* cherry coke with the true granadine syrup! Yum!

Kelly Jamieson said...

I love food! I luckily seem to have a good metabolism and don't weigh 200 lbs, but I should, although for the most part I'm also lucky I like lots of "healthy" foods. I do love veggies in their glorious natural state - green beans? Why would you add anything to that? They're a thing of beauty. Although a salad to me is really not a good deal - iceberg lettuce has no nutrition and is just an excuse to eat spooonsful of salad dressing. Might as well eat out of the Ranch dressing jar with a spoon. So I skip salads. But cheese - low fat cheese is a disgrace. If you're going to eat cheese, go for the good stuff. Everything in moderation is my motto.