September 11, 2008


Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life. By Jane R. Hirschman and Carol H. Munter. Da Capo. $6.99.

Vegan Lunch Box. By Jennifer McCann. Da Capo. $19.95.

     America’s obesity problem is scarcely the news today that it was in 1988, when Overcoming Overeating was first published. Twenty years later, this updated paperback edition may have a more urgent message than ever. Yet the book is likely doomed to become just one of many tomes purporting to tell people how to handle what is now often called “food addiction.” It contains no purported magic remedy for obesity, no simple 12-step plan to thinness. In fact, as the authors point out in their new introduction, “It has become increasingly clear that diets don’t work.” What does work, according to Jane Hirschman and Carol Munter – who are co-directors of the National Center for Overcoming Overeating in New York City – is their “proven method to end compulsive eating,” which provides a way “to stop reaching for food when the world feels overwhelming.” Their method, in essence, involves relearning one’s relationship with food, which means learning to eat what the body requires as fuel, and only that much – stripping food of its emotional connotations, to the extent possible, and treating it as the energy source that it is. This is not a new idea, and was not new even in 1988, but Hirschman and Munter present it clearly and forthrightly, with good specific mindfulness suggestions. For instance, you can create a ledger with columns labeled “Mouth Hunger” and “Stomach Hunger” to help you identify the extent to which you are fueling your body compared with how much you are eating for other reasons (“mouth hunger” is the authors’ term for “psychological hunger”). The idea here is to “legalize” foods, teaching yourself that it is fine to eat pretty much whatever you want, but only in the context of food being fuel. The discussion of “forbidden foods” is particularly interesting, since the authors have no problem with someone deciding to consume only, say, milkshakes – because, after a while, the craving for them will disappear, and stomach hunger will start insisting on greater variety. Like all well-done self-help books, this one has the potential to change your life, but only if you are ready to change it before you start reading. Motivation is the one thing that neither this book nor any other can supply. If you have made the decision to change your approach to eating and thereby improve your health, Overcoming Overeating can help you attain your goal. But the work, and the determination that precedes it, must be your own.

     For those who have decided that the food they eat will be non-animal-based, Vegan Lunch Box offers a variety of ideas and recipes for midday meals for children and adults alike – although its focus is primarily on families raising their kids as vegans, as stay-at-home mom Jennifer McCann is doing. This is not a book for people trying to decide whether to become vegans: McCann is passionate about her cause, discussing the way she became a vegetarian at 15 and spent an entire school year eating nothing but “peanut butter and honey sandwich[es] on inch-thick slices of extremely heavy whole wheat,” plus a daily apple and carrot sticks, because “I was determined that if this was what I had to do to save the animals, I would do it.” And that was before she moved from vegetarian to vegan. Now McCann offers a very wide variety of vegan alternatives – the front cover promises 130, the title page 150 – and is proud to assert that “they contain no animal products of any kind – no meat, no dairy, no fish, no eggs, and no honey.” Get past the thread of sanctimony (or share in it), and you will find all sorts of recipes to try: sprout salad with mandarin orange dressing; “sneaky momma’s black bean soup,” designed to “hide a number of nutritious vegetables”; pita sandwich with flaxy hummus; chili con ‘carne,’ which actually contains textured vegetable protein; whole-grain sushi, made with brown rice; pumpkin carob chip muffins; and many more. Some of the recipes have a slight flavor of the apologetic about them – why “hide” the vegetables you are so proud to be serving, and why try to approximate a meat dish such as chili after forswearing meat? But there are plenty of tasty ideas here for families committed, for whatever reason and to whatever degree, to vegan eating.

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