August 26, 2010


Simple Comforts: 50 Heartwarming Recipes. By Sur La Table. Andrews McMeel. $15.

The Longevity Diet: The Only Proven Way to Slow the Aging Process and Maintain Peak Vitality—Through Calorie Restriction. By Brian M. Delaney and Lisa Walford. Da Capo. $14.95.

     It is in large part the different ways of dealing with food that separate mammals from reptiles. For reptiles, food is purely fuel: because they do not need to use it to maintain their body temperature, it exists purely to keep existence going and need not be consumed very frequently. For mammals, though, obtaining and consuming food is a, so to speak, all-consuming endeavor, because we must constantly replenish our energy supply – the calories (literally a unit of heat) on which we draw to keep our internal temperature essentially the same, whether the external world’s reading is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or 110. For humans and other mammals, the pursuit and consumption of food takes up a great deal of time, and food provides significant psychological benefits as well as satisfying purely physical needs. Thus, altering one’s eating habits is no small thing: whether those habits are good or bad, they provide some sort of psychological gratification that is as important as the satisfaction of a physical necessity – if not more so. Hence the immediate understandability of a title such as Simple Comforts: 50 Heartwarming Recipes. This book is definitely not for reptiles. The foods here are ones whose consumption goes directly to the heart and soul, and perhaps only incidentally to the stomach. Sur La Table, an upscale Seattle-based chain with more than 80 stores, has been involved in producing half a dozen books about the pleasures of preparing and eating food – presumably using Sur La Table’s products whenever possible, although Simple Comforts is not so crassly commercial as to suggest that outright. What this small hardcover book offers is six types of comfort food: sweet breads (not to be confused with sweetbreads); savory breads, such as herb corn bread; soups, stews and sandwiches; main dishes; side dishes; and desserts. That pretty well covers everything from, err, soup to nuts – even breakfast if you focus on breads for that meal (one recipe here is for “Easy Morning Muffins with Raspberries”). The recipes, which are homespun but with upscale touches (like those raspberries in the muffins), are only part of this book’s attraction. The other part is the verbiage, which is itself designed to be as soothing as the foods – the muffins are “soft-crumbed and as comforting as a hug when warm from the oven,” for example. The adorableness here can get a little cloying, as in the recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich: “Rarely do so few ingredients create such a wonderfully satisfying thing to eat.” But you can, of course, skip the descriptive passages and go right to the recipes, which are well thought out and allow cooks to make old-fashioned comfort foods (such as sweet potatoes) or similar foods with some contemporary touches (“a splash of apple juice and a bit of finely grated ginger add a fresh spark to this old favorite”). This is more a gift book, showing the recipient how warmly you feel toward him or her, than a serious recipe book, since the recipes are just fine but are obviously not the whole point of the work: do you really need to buy Simple Comforts to find out how to make vanilla cupcakes or ice cream sundaes? Of course, if you yourself take comfort in food, there is nothing wrong with making Simple Comforts a gift from you to you….

     But don’t overdo it. Americans, in particular, tend to go a bit hog wild (so to speak) over comfort foods and many other types of food as well; hence the American obesity epidemic. But given the psychological satisfaction that food provides, there is little to no value in having health professionals or (worse) government officials warn people about the dangers of overeating and exhort Americans to eat less and eat more healthfully. There needs to be a countervailing psychological balance to offset the satisfaction of food for there to be any chance of making significant changes in eating habits. Well, how about life itself? That is the theory that underlies The Longevity Diet, originally published in 2005 and now offered in an updated second edition. Neither author is a physician or scientist: Brian M. Delaney is president of the Calorie Restriction Society, and Lisa Walford is a yoga instructor and author. This does not invalidate their ideas or arguments, but it does mean that The Longevity Diet may not appeal to scientifically oriented readers, despite the authors’ introduction of various scientists’ comments backing up their assertions. Still, since the love of eating – and overeating – has major psychological components, strict scientific arguments may not be the most effective way to change people’s habits. The authors make their pitch for their ideas very directly: “The Longevity Diet is a way of eating that will radically lessen your chances of suffering from the vast majority of diseases and other ailments that may afflict us as we age.” This is the basis of their approach – and it contains both power and problems. The power lies in the idea that changing certain habits can give people longer, healthier lives. The problems lie in the necessarily careful words: “will radically lessen your chances of suffering from the vast majority of diseases and other ailments that may afflict us as we age.” There are no guarantees here – there really cannot be any – but what that means is that the authors recommend possibly major changes in eating and living habits without being able to provide any solid, unquestioned reason to alter one’s life. This is certainly not their fault: no one has found an effective way to get people to opt for potential long-term benefit over guaranteed short-term enjoyment. But the whole book must, by its very nature, fall a little flat to the extent that it asks people to make significant changes in their lives without being able to promise anything more than a hope (not a guarantee) of better health sometime in the distant future. So readers’ willingness to follow the approach of Delaney and Walford may well depend on how far that approach deviates from readers’ current behaviors: people asked to make huge changes for unknown, nonguaranteed benefits in the far future are less likely to alter their lives than people asked to make small, incremental changes. The Longevity Diet says that people should simply reduce the number of calories they consume while eating more foods that are good for them and fewer ones that are not. This is, of course, simple only in theory, especially for those who get significant psychological benefit (comfort, if you will) from less-healthful foods. Admitting that “there is at least as much art as science” in implementing their recommendations, Delaney and Walford suggest three ways to eat for better health: weight watching, counting calories and frequently checking certain health markers. They explain how each method works, then get into a series of thoroughly unsurprising food recommendations to be followed in whatever method you may choose: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, choose whole grains over enriched ones, use monounsaturated fats and avoid trans fats, get enough fiber, avoid sugars, and so on. There is little that is new or unusual here, little that is a bad idea, and little in the daily food diaries and meal planning to encourage a new approach by people not already committed to careful tracking of what they eat and careful planning of future meals. The problem with The Longevity Diet is not the diet itself – it is the divergence of the system for implementing the diet from the system (or, if you prefer, non-system) under which the people most likely to benefit from a change of food habits now operate. The Longevity Diet is simply another book with very good nutritional and other lifestyle ideas (yes, it urges exercise), but very little in its approach that will likely attract people to stop getting their current psychological benefits from food and switch instead to an eating regimen that may, in the future, if their genes do not predispose them otherwise, bring them better health as they age.

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