The Imperial Calorie

Is it better to know, or not to know?  Are there certain pieces of information of which you’re happy to remain ignorant?  At what point does “knowledge is power” get subsumed by “ignorance is bliss”?  And what happens when all of these considerations involve the number of calories in your food?

Thanks to a new federal regulation that kicked in earlier this month, those sorts of questions have become slightly less theoretical than they were before.  In compliance with the Affordable Care Act—and following years of resistance by special interest groups—all food establishments in the U.S. with at least 20 outlets are now required to post calorie counts of all their products in all their stores.

While many chains have been doing this voluntarily for years, the practice became law on May 7, which means you can no longer order a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts without learning that it contains nearly twice as many calories as a bagel, nor can you finish a meal at Olive Garden without willfully consuming more caloric energy than the average American burns in an entire day—with or without breadsticks.

Of course, maybe this new law means nothing to you.  Maybe you are a knowledgeable, health-conscious consumer who knows exactly what you’re putting into your body at all times.  Maybe you’ve long been aware of how deadly chain restaurant food tends to be for your waistline and cholesterol levels, and you tread carefully whenever you indulge—as you do when eating at home, at work or at Thanksgiving dinner.

However, this would hardly make you a prototypical American, 160 million of whom are either overweight or obese—a jaw-dropping figure that suggests a majority of our fellow countrymen either don’t understand how their digestive systems work or don’t care, and who pose an existential threat to our national healthcare system in any case.

As a matter of public health, then, requiring eating establishments to disclose nutrition information is a no-brainer and a win-win, and has largely been accepted as such in recent years.  By listing calorie counts on the menu, a restaurant provides valuable, potentially life-saving information to those who might need it, while still honoring every citizen’s God-given right to eat whatever they damn well please.

The problem here—as I suggested at the top—is that you cannot un-see what is written directly in front of you, and there’s a certain group of Americans who really, desperately wish they could.  If some people want to know how many calories they’re consuming while others are indifferent, there is also a third category:  Those (sometimes including me) whose culinary pleasure is dependent on not knowing, chemically-speaking, exactly what it is they’re eating, and once facts and figures enter into it, the whole experience turns sour.

I don’t know about you, but when I was younger and first scanning the nutrition labels on every foodstuff in the kitchen, the whole point of dining out was to eat as much as humanly possible, because you had no earthly idea how many calories were involved and could therefore assume there were none at all.  As any corrupt politician will tell you, plausible deniability is a powerful thing.

Admittedly, one cannot responsibly live in such utter obliviousness forever—aforementioned 160 million Americans notwithstanding—and as I’ve grown older, I’ve become considerably more informed and mindful about the science of nutrition and human metabolism, which has enabled me to balance the books in my eating and exercise routines, as well as to perform ballpark calorie calculations in my head in almost any setting—a superpower that is both highly useful and profoundly irritating.

On the one hand, becoming educated about food has unlocked the secret to losing (or at least not gaining) weight and feeling generally in control of my destiny.  By turning meals into a math problem—or, more accurately, a budget—I am considerably less likely to stuff my face for the hell of it and then feel like crap for the rest of the day.

On the other hand, by being super-vigilant about what I deposit into my pie hole—say, by scarfing down three slices of pizza for lunch instead of six—I risk turning eating into a purely clinical and joyless act—something every diet fad in history has expressly tried to avoid, because why on Earth would you remove the pleasure from the most inherently pleasurable activity of your day?

It has taken me several years—and one rather dramatic period of weight loss—to reconcile those twin urges without driving myself completely crazy.  (As Oscar Wilde put it, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”)  While I don’t regret this strange journey to enlightenment (such as it was), I often wonder whether I’d be happier if I’d remained fat and ignorant instead of thin and neurotic—and whether America as a whole is feeling similarly now that it’s become virtually impossible to eat anything without the terrible knowledge of how much it’s costing us (in all senses of the word).  Whether our ability to live longer and healthier is necessarily making us live better.

There’s a saying amongst dieters, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”  How wonderful life would be if such a thing were actually true.

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Gobble Away

In recent days, the Boston Globe’s website, Boston.com, posted its annual slide slow of an advice column, “How to Cut 1,000 Calories from Thanksgiving.”

The Globe has included this feature in its virtual Turkey Day section for many years, hoping to assure those watching their weight that fully enjoying the fourth Thursday of November and blowing a giant hole in one’s diet are not mutually dependent phenomena.

Allow me to save you a few precious seconds and reveal this magical waistline-preserving secret right here and now:  If you wish to eat less food on Thanksgiving, eat less food on Thanksgiving.

I jest not.  To quote directly from one of the slides:  “Instead of piling on a full cup of mashed potatoes on your plate, consider scooping only half as much.”  From another:  “Instead of covering your plate with 6 ounces of a combo of white and dark [turkey] meat with skin, consider taking only 3 ounces of meat and leaving the fatty skin in the roasting pan with the rest of the grease.”

Smaller portions?  Less fat?  Genius!  Why didn’t I think of that?

In fairness, the Globe also offers slightly more sophisticated tips for reigning yourself in, such as stir-frying the veggie casserole instead of dousing it with fried onion rings.  But the takeaway message is the same:  The trick to eating well is eating well.

If this insight comes as breaking news to a significant portion of America’s weight loss community, then it’s no wonder our country is so irretrievably fat.

However, I suspect this is not the case.  The truth is that all who are serious about scaling themselves down know exactly how to do it:  Eat less, exercise more.  Period, full stop.  It works every time and never lets you down.

The only mystery involves summoning the willpower to do so, and then to keep it up for the rest of your life.

Accordingly, Thanksgiving indeed presents as a singular conundrum.  Apart from its more noble components, the whole point of this most American of holidays is to gorge ourselves into a blissful stupor simply because we can.

Yes, pretty much all of our annual national festivals involve an unholy assortment of culinary treats of one kind of another.  But Thanksgiving is unique in its insistence on gobbling up every last bit of it and licking the plate when you’re done.  The feast isn’t a mere side show; it’s the main event.

And that makes a real difference for those who make a point of avoiding exactly that.

It’s bad enough for a dieter to be overwhelmed by a bottomless buffet of hearty holiday helpings.  But to be all but ordered by one’s culture—and by relatives across the table—to dive in until it’s all gone?  Well, the psychological odds are not in your favor.

Your humble servant is certainly no exception.  I walked into last year’s family gathering determined, as ever, to keep my cravings under control.  Then out came the chips, the ale, the stuffing, the casseroles, the fruit salads—each new dish more impossibly sumptuous than the last—and all my defenses vaporized on contact.  At dessert, one whiff of my cousin’s homemade sweet potato pie and all hell broke loose.

In short, the effort at moderation was futile.  The fact is, Thanksgiving is not the time for restraint or self control.  Thanksgiving is about gluttony and excess and that’s just the way it is.

If, like me, you are simultaneously preoccupied with maintaining a slim figure yet utterly powerless in the face of fragrant culinary temptations, my Thanksgiving Day prescription is to give up.  To abandon any possibility of awakening on Black Friday without a rounded tummy and a splitting headache.  To relax and roll with the tide.  Some traditions simply cannot be fought.

And if, like the Globe’s target audience, you truly wish to deduct 1,000 calories from your Thanksgiving budget, might I suggest plucking out five days on either side of November 28, and consuming 200 fewer calories on each.

Then on Thanksgiving itself, you may proceed exactly as you were going to all along, without a moment of hesitation or guilt.

That’s what the holidays are all about.  You can have your turkey and eat it, too.