The F-Word

Today's special: Diet-guru crash course—with a side of celeb-chef comfort food

How will Americans pick a president when they can't even decide what's for dinner? As Democratic candidates battle it out state by state, weight-loss gurus are waging war for readers months, even years, after their books were first released. According to Publisher's Weekly, Dr. Arthur Agatston's South Beach Diet is holding strong at No. 1 after 40 weeks on the hardcover nonfiction list, with Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution making a comeback in paper. But if so many Americans are watching their carbs and calories, how did Rachael Ray's new cookbook, 30-Minute Meals 2, an offshoot of her popular Food Network series, sustain a 22-week run on the Times bestseller list?

In America's latest cycle of schizophrenia, diet bibles and celeb-chef cookbooks divide our dollars and devotion. And while the instructions may vary, the goal is always the same: a happy and fulfilling life. Removed from its creeds, food has become a spiritual obsession in itself.

Food, of course, has always played a central role in the display of spiritual devotion. Ever since Eve first ate that apple, food has been our favorite metaphor for temptation and transgression, whether we fast during Lent, keep kosher, or abstain from alcohol. Sometimes we may celebrate our appetites—observing the Eucharist, Shabbat dinner, or Muslim feast days—but strict rules and rituals still guide what, when, and how we eat.

For Dr. Phil McGraw, popular talk show host and self-help superstar, salvation and salivation are no less intertwined. With all his tough-love, tell-it-like-it-is proselytizing, he is America's secular televangelist, the Pat Robertson of pop psychology. "You have a decision to make. You know it and so do I," he writes in his new book, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom. "Do you want to keep chasing after, and being seduced by, 'miracle' diets, slimming products, and 'overnight' weight loss?" Don't believe those serpents who speak of cabbage diets; Dr. Phil's way is the only way. "If you adopt what I will give you on every page of this book . . . nothing will stop you from being anything other than healthy, vibrant, in shape, and fully in charge of yourself and everything you think, do, and feel."

No one should minimize the importance of health or the problems of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in this country. But when Dr. Phil leaps from healthy to "fully in charge of yourself and everything you think, do, and feel," he reveals his true televangelist colors. Weight loss, it turns out, is not about losing weight; it's about taking control of your life and attaining the happiness and "freedom" that supposedly follow. Dr. Phil manages to restrain his missionary zeal long enough to impart some intense, informed, and persuasive psychotherapy, if you can follow every one of his steps. Regardless, it's one thing to promise "the ultimate weight solution" and another to promise the solution to "everything."

The late Dr. Robert Atkins was around long before Dr. Phil, refining and rewriting his low-carb, high-protein plan since 1972, yet the 2002 edition of New Diet Revolution finds him sounding less like an M.D. and more like a Ph.D.—that is, more like Dr. Phil—than ever before. Three lines in and he's already promising to "change your life once and for all." At least Dr. Phil knows that weight loss is hard work (even as he berates you for being hopelessly weak). Dr. Atkins tries to promise a solution without sacrifice. In the preface to the 1996 edition, he writes, "Fighting the scale armed only with willpower and determination works, at best, for only five low-fat dieters out of a hundred. But we might instead use our intellect . . . and bypass our need to rely on willpower." Who needs willpower when you can eat all the bacon and pork rinds you want, when you can lose all that excess fat "while eating second and third helpings of traditional main courses"? By 2002, Dr. Atkins toned down his all-you-can-eat enthusiasm, while assuring his readers that his diet remains "surprisingly easy." Subway, TGI Friday's, and 7-Eleven have even started advertising Atkins-friendly food, a Faustian deal if ever there was one.

Nevertheless, Dr. Atkins has his skeptics. The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss has, in fact, found much of its success criticizing Atkins's plan as unbalanced and unhealthy. Rather than low carb or low fat, Dr. Agatston emphasizes "the right carbs and the right fats," a more intuitive if less revolutionary approach. But even if Dr. Agatston avoids most of the spiritual rhetoric that makes Dr. Phil so unbearable, he is still selling a "way of life," reaching out for converts. A quarter of the book relies on inspirational stories of happy and successful dieters, trying to convince us that the plan is as "foolproof" as the subtitle says (just ignore the final chapter, "Why Do People Occasionally Fail on This Diet?").

This is where the celebrity chefs come in: If dieting can't guarantee happiness, maybe eating can. Since it premiered in 1993, the Food Network has become the highly successful spiritual center of foodies across the country. The popularity of chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and Jamie Oliver has helped to build a subscriber base of 80 million and prompted numerous media tie-ins, like Ray's 30-Minute Meals cookbooks.

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