Whatever happened to breaking bread?

Anne Merritt defies Atkins and begs us to give pastry a chance

So long, and thanks for all the fish, Dr. Atkins.
So long, and thanks for all the fish, Dr. Atkins.
Photo courtesy of AP

In the 1980s, health-conscious North Americans would start their days with grapefruit and cottage cheese with black coffee, tossing their permed hair and turning a cold —and often padded—shoulder to foods not hyped as miracle fat-burners.

In the 1990s, health-conscious people would start their days with yogurt and fruit, brushing crumbs of nonfat granola off their Calvin Klein T-shirts and oversized jeans, praising themselves for bringing their fat intake as close to zero as possible.

Now, health-conscious people pile their breakfast plates high with bacon and eggs, hiding their eyes behind a curtain of flat-ironed hair and newsboy hats, lest they catch a glimpse of muffins or starchy fruits. The trend here? We know that as a whole, the continent isn’t getting thinner or healthier, and there are stacks of shameful statistics on obesity, heart disease and diabetes to prove it.

The Canadian government recently placed a ban on the labeling of foods as “low-carb,” since no universal method of counting carbs exists, and sneaky marketers can use this loophole to hawk their wares with the low-carb promise, knowing the diet-frenzied masses will buy them. This is a smart move by the government to protect consumers who aren’t cynical enough to believe that food retailers are scheming and deceptive.

However, I’d like to imagine people can use their own discretion enough to note when a food is good or harmful for them, without blindly following the preaching of the Atkins craze.

Ten years ago nobody had heard of cutting carbohydrates, and yet in the ’90s we thought ourselves to be pretty nutrition-savvy. Who’s to say that in 10 more years, a new trend will make all this carb-cutting look downright laughable?

The pinnacle of low-carb foolishness came to me this summer in France, where I sat at a cafe and watched from of the corner of my eye as three American girls tucked into their large salads-as-meals, insisting to the patient waiter they didn’t want baguette with their food, and not noticing his look of helpless confusion. In France— nation of good food and shockingly low rates of heart disease —bread is the sustenance of a meal.

Until just a few years ago, this was the policy on our side of the ocean as well. I would have pointed out this scene of humorous culture-clash to my travelmate, but my mouth was full of pastry, and it was too delicious to swallow in haste. And between our bungling attempts at speaking the French language and our willingness to dive into the pastry-and-espresso French lifestyle, the waiter loved us.

I’m not writing this as a scolding of people’s trend-obsessions—I’m hardly in a place to pass judgement on the flawed or credible eating habits of others.

I’d just like to address the fact that food obsession is an issue, albeit a shake-your-head funny one if you ask me.

When one decade’s taboo is another decade’s sustenance, it should be fairly obvious that an entire continent will not get healthier through a Russian roulette of diet trends, eliminating food group by food group in hopes of finding the cure-all diet. There’s a humourous futility in mapping the fads as they come and go, knowing that three decades later we are none the wiser, more crazed by diets than by health itself.

So what happens with these hopeful dieters over the ages? Did a generation of low-fat crusaders succumb to the claims of Dr. Atkins and his low-carb gospel? Or do the two camps co-exist in bitter rivalry? I can picture each diet group meeting in some sort of time-warped breakfast together, where the people from the 90’s would snatch up fruit and toast, leaving the ham and sausages for the hungry new millenium crowd.

The 1980s group would hoard the grapefruit juice, throwing in supplements and wheatgrass just for kicks, while the gang from our time would look on in horror and amazement at the sucrose-filled, low-fibre drinks.

A riot would break out at the granola bin, where it is revealed the ’90s group had picked out all the protein-rich almonds because of their fat content, and thrown them into the garbage. The tray of lean turkey slices would be fought over and divided as though it were the Rhineland, and the yogurt and cottage cheese section would spark such a debate that a permanent tribunal would have to be established, as the issue couldn’t conceivably come to a close anytime before lunch. Somewhere in the picture a rogue late-’90s organic band would scold everyone on the health risks of aspartame and pesticides, and proceed to dish out herbal teas to each table like Halloween candy.

And where do the rest of us fit in? Hopefully, long-gone before the brawls commence. It’s only breakfast, after all.

A crash course on questionable diets

Grapefruit Diet

This diet also advocates meat consumption as well as a 1/2 grapefruit with every freaking meal. Grapefruit dieters can—and do—subsist on less than 800 calories a day. The catch is that if you subscribe to this diet forever, you will probably die of malnutrition, and if you go back to a normal healthy diet for a human being, you will without a doubt regain every pound you’ve lost.

The Mastication Diet

This diet is often dubbed the first of the fad diets. In 1890, a guy named Horace Fletcher insisted that if you chew your food until it becomes liquidy mush, you’d consume no more food than was absolutely necessary. His nickname? “The Great Masticator.” Many sore jaws ensued.

Cabbage Soup Diet

This diet entails that you make a giant vat of cabbage soup made from bullion, onion soup mix and of course, cabbage, and eat it constantly throughout the day until you feel satiated. Apparently—and unsurprisingly, gas is a problem with this diet.

Pritikin Diet Cardiologist Nathan Pritikin started this diet in the 1970s to treat heart disease. Now, he’s created his own “Longevity Center and Spa” and like Dr. Atkins, has built his own empire on people’s food guilt.

Pasta, white bread and animal fats are eliminated while vegetables and whole grains can be consumed in mass quantities. This diet isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but most people’s accounts vouch for the fact that it’s the most unsatisfying diet ever. Plus, whole wheat bread sucks.

The Atkins Diet

The infamous, celebrated and often-questioned mother of all fad diets. Carbs are a big no-no, but lots of meat is a go-go. It’s religiously clung to by Jennifer Aniston—remember those terrifying Emmy photos where she showed off her newly protruding hip bones in a little black number? However, Miss Aniston and her scrawny cohorts could suffer in the long run from a number of risks associated with a high-protein, low-carb diet, including colorectal cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. Also, it’s well known that Dr. Atkins himself was obese when he died in April of 2003. A quote from the Associated Press says that Atkins was “grossly swollen, so much so that his family and associates barely recognized him.” Pass the croissant, please!

South Beach Diet

This diet is virtually identical to the Atkins diet, distinguishing “good fats”—monosaturated fats like olive and canola oil—from “bad fats” —basically, all cheese—and is highlighted for its tendency to reduce excess stomach girth in test cases.

With files from active.com, pritikin.com

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