By Tara Parker-Pope
Thursday, September 18, 2008
After decades of obsessing about fat, calories and carbs, many dieters have made the unorthodox decision to simply enjoy food again.
That doesn't mean they're giving up on health or even weight loss. Instead, consumers and nutritionists say they are seeing a shift toward "positive eating" shunning deprivation diets and instead focusing on adding seasonal vegetables, nuts, berries and other healthful foods to their plates.
For 32-year-old Rina Gonzalez-Echandi of Los Angeles, giving up calorie counting and packaged foods and adding real food back into her diet has helped her maintain her weight and even be happier. She used to watch fat and calories so obsessively she would sometimes avoid socializing.
"You forget how wonderful it is to have a meal with friends and family," said Gonzalez-Echandi, a special-education aide and mother of a 10-year-old daughter. "I realize I had taken that joy away from myself."
Now she focuses on the pleasure of eating fresh, home-cooked food. She has started cooking with olive oil and occasionally butter, and has increased her consumption of nuts and peanut butter. She even got to know her grocer to find out which fruits and vegetables are in season and grown locally.
The market research firm NPD Group gets a glimpse of national eating habits through the food diaries it has collected from 5,000 consumers since 1980. The percentage of those consumers who are on a diet is lower than at any time since information on dieting was first collected in 1985. At the peak in 1990, 39 percent of the women and 29 percent of the men were dieting. Today, that number has dropped to 26 percent of women and 16 percent of men.
The diarists also report eating more organic foods and whole grains, said Harry Balzer, an NPD vice president.
"Instead of trying to avoid things, they've started adding things," Balzer said.
Even the Calorie Control Council, which represents makers of commercial diet foods, notes the percentage of people who are dieting has declined to 29 percent in 2007 from 33 percent in 2004.
And there are other indicators of a shift in eating habits. In May, the market research firm Information Resources reported that 53 percent of consumers say they are cooking from scratch more than they did just six months ago, in part, no doubt, because of the rising cost of prepared foods.
Sales of organic foods have surged, and the number of farmers' markets has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.
Nutrition experts and consumers say positive eating trends are being fueled in part by the failures of the past. A national epidemic of obesity suggests that the spread of diet foods, sugar-free soft drinks and low-fat snacks hasn't helped people manage their weight.
Cynthia Sass, a New York dietitian and author who was a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association from 2001 to 2007, said many clients embrace positive eating after years of failed dieting. "They would much rather focus on what to eat instead of what not to eat," Sass said. "Most people I have encountered have a track record of trying different things that didn't work for them."
Meanwhile, books like Gary Taubes's "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) and Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" (Penguin, 2008) have prompted a rethinking of Americans' eating habits and dependence on processed and refined foods.
Martha McClintock, 46, of Riverdale, in the Bronx, said she was more focused these days on adding healthful foods like avocados, blueberries and walnuts to her plate. She said she tries to improve the quality of food she eats, such as switching to blue corn chips as a snack rather than potato chips.
"If something is high in calories, I try to look at the big picture," said McClintock, a photo service account executive. "If you're going to indulge in something, just try and walk it off or limit it to once a week."
Some former dieters say they've been influenced by the international Slow Food movement, a 10-year-old group that encourages locally grown, unprocessed food. Over the Labor Day weekend an estimated 60,000 people attended the Slow Food Nation festival in San Francisco.
Alice Waters, of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and a prominent supporter of the Slow Food movement, said food habits change when a person begins to cook at home more. Her efforts to encourage home cooking include a new campaign of Internet cooking videos from the Slow Food Nation event, such as one from the chef Bryant Terry, who showed how to strip corn from the cob and sauté it with chili.
"We need to demystify cooking," Waters said. "It creates feelings about food that make you feel cared for, and that's the kind of food that really changes habits."
The cookbook author and television personality Rachael Ray has attracted both loyal followers and harsh critics for creating food that doesn't focus on calories, fat, carbohydrates or even portion control. She intentionally doesn't include calorie information with her cookbook recipes.
"I think that puts your head into science and away from what I think the experience of food should be," Ray said. "If you take the time to cook and provide yourself with a balanced diet, you can cook freely and eat pretty freely and in pretty large amounts without worrying so much about the nutritional intake or the calories or your pant size."
Some nutritionists aren't convinced that the positive eating trend will catch on with time-strapped families. Others worry that people will wrongly interpret positive eating as over-indulging, rather than adding moderate amounts of healthful foods into the diet.
"If everyone ate more plant-based and more whole foods and unprocessed foods, that would be major," said Arlene Spark, associate professor of nutrition at Hunter College in New York. "But that would mean people going back to cooking, and what we've lost is people's ability and knowledge of how to cook."
The real question, is whether better eating can translate into weight loss.
Last year, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a study of 97 obese women, all of whom were avoiding high-fat foods. Half the women were instructed to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. By the end of a year, the women who were focused on adding vegetables lost an average of 17 pounds, 20 percent more than the women who were just paying attention to fat consumption.
Also, the more time people spend on tasks like food shopping, cooking and kitchen cleanup, the more likely they are to be of average weight. The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture found that people of normal weight spend more time on meal-related tasks than people who are overweight or underweight.
Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist whose book "What To Eat" (North Point Press, 2006) focuses on sensible eating, said she thinks people view food as the enemy, when the real problem is that they have forgotten how to enjoy food in a healthful way.
"If you're eating something you really like, maybe you won't feel like you need to eat so much of it," she said. "If you want a muffin, then eat a gorgeous muffin with marvelous blueberries that's moist and crispy on the outside with a little sugar on it. Yum."
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