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 Timesbestseller 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.

"It's only dinner," writes Ray, "but the rewards will last a lifetime." Just follow the short and simple recipes in 30-Minute Meals 2, like "You-Won't-Be-Single-for-Long Cream Pasta," and you too will be ending every other sentence with an exclamation point. Her special section on "Healthy Hunger Busters" only calls attention to her indulgent habits everywhere else. Along similar lines, U.K. imports Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver hardly ever talk about health, calories, or fat. Lawson's Nigella Bites (named after her show on the Style Network) offers instructions for deep-frying candy bars, while a two-page afterword in Oliver's Happy Days With the Naked Chefcan't help but seem like an afterthought.The central deception of all these books is that you can eat everything inside while looking as good as the people on the cover. Never has the connection between sex and food been more explicit than with this crop of celebrity chefs. Lawson may be 43, but she had no problem posing for GQ with sultry wet hair and bared shoulders. In the October issue of "lad magazine" FHM, Rachael Ray appeared in a three-page spread, sucking a strawberry in one photo, licking a chocolate-covered spoon in another. Then there's the tongue-in-cheek title of Happy Days With the Naked Chef. "Sorry to disappoint you," says Oliver's page on foodnetwork.com, "it's not the chef that's naked, it's the food!"

In the end, however, people are turning to cookbooks for the same reason they are turning to weight-loss manifestos—therapy. Ray's earlier book was called Comfort Food, while Lawson has virtually made comfort food her specialty. Happy Days, too, includes a chapter on "Comfort Grub." Where else can dieters turn when the promises of Dr. Atkins fail them, when the tough love of Dr. Phil leaves them sore? Food not only offers happiness, it offers emotional support. As Lawson writes, "We all get tired, stressed, sad or lonely, and this is food that soothes." It is, after all, no accident that The South Beach Diet, like New Diet Revolution before it, includes 183 pages of healthy recipes, many from trendy-sounding Miami restaurants. Like Dr. Atkins, Dr. Agatston wants to make dieting as quick, easy, and painless as possible, so you can salivate over Armand salad and spicy tuna and still lose eight to 13 pounds in the first 14 days. 30-Minute Meals, meet Two-Week Weight Loss.

Whatever the recipe, weight-loss guides and cookbooks cannot hold all the answers. Sure, watching your waistline may enable a healthy, happier life, but it cannot guarantee it any more than Rachael Ray's pasta can guarantee a marriage proposal. Lawson told the Times (shortly before becoming a regular columnist), "The interesting thing about food is that it's both about reality and escape. After those planes bashed into the World Trade Center, I just wanted to chop something." Maybe that's true for a domestic goddess, but I still think there's more to life than just the joy of cooking.


Stephen Vider shared an apartment last summer with a pastry student at the Cordon Bleu in London.

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