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Jabari Asim

Dietary Discipline

By Jabari Asim
Monday, January 17, 2005; 9:27 AM

WASHINGTON -- I imagine you've seen those newspaper cartoons in which a bathroom scale insults Broom Hilda, Garfield or some other pleasantly plump character. I'm beginning to have a similar relationship with my laptop.

If my computer doesn't think I'm getting too hefty for my own good, it should stop letting that weight-loss commercial interrupt my Web surfing. I've been tempted to let loose a sarcastic rejoinder but I'm afraid of spitting doughnut crumbs onto my keyboard.

_____More Asim_____
The Mad World of Words (washingtonpost.com, Jan 10, 2005)
Comic Books and the Human Condition (washingtonpost.com, Jan 3, 2005)
The Worth of a Dollar (washingtonpost.com, Dec 27, 2004)

The ad consistently evades my pop-up blocker, which is annoying enough, but it gets worse: It also talks. While I contemplate a woman's svelte, bare torso, a charming female voice encourages me to consider turning my body "into a fat-burning machine." "The best part," she assures me, is I "don't have to worry about exercise!" All I have to do is wear a patch for 30 days and -- voila! -- a brand new, slimmer me.

This will be news to the federal government, which has just issued new dietary guidelines that recommend at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. That's intimidating news to Americans with sedentary lifestyles, such as desk jockeys like myself. Too bad, says Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services. At a Washington news conference, he derided Americans who, he says, are waiting for a magic weight-loss pill.

"It is not too hard," he said. "You can get up (from the table) tonight. Tonight. Everybody in this room only (eat) half the dessert and then go out and walk around the block, and if you're going to watch television get down and do 10 pushups and five situps. And you know something? You will feel better; in a little while you'll be able to do 20."

I can't speak for anybody else, but for me half the dessert means eating only half a carton of Breyer's Butter Almond. Even if I managed such discipline, I'd still be challenged by the carton's wee small voice, calling to me each time I passed near the refrigerator. Maybe I could drown it out by groaning loudly during my situps.

The government's new guidelines also call for 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables each day. That's a tall order in my view, and I'm a vegetarian. Let me clarify that: It may be more accurate to say I'm a pasta-tarian. Ravioli could be my middle name. For years my favorite dish was fettuccine alfredo, which one health-advocacy group memorably denounced as a heart attack on a plate.

The focus on produce earned high marks from Michael Jacobsen, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He said the emphasis is "consistent with the advice to move Americans towards a more plant-based direction."

And direction is something we apparently are looking for. Just ask Mireille Guiliano, whose "French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure," released in December, already has 225,000 copies in print. She contends that Americans overeat because we don't know how to slow down and savor each bite. "At the beginning it might feel silly to look at the food, to smell the food, to chew slowly and put your fork and knife down between bites, but then it becomes habitual," she writes. "After a while, you can find ecstatic enjoyment in a single piece of fine dark chocolate that a dozen Snickers bars can never give you."

Guiliano may have something there. Only 11 percent of the French are overweight, loosely defined as weighing at least 30 pounds more than they should. Recent newspaper accounts have varied considerably when estimating the number of overweight Americans. I saw numbers ranging from 30 percent to 65 percent. But the stories were unanimous in describing the number of expanding Americans as well, expanding.

Perhaps we could do better with dietary discipline if we made it a matter of national pride. Thompson implied as much when he told reporters that successful weight loss requires such all-American virtues as "personal intuition and initiative to get the job done."

It may be too much to ask in light of our current Francophobia, but my fellow citizens are welcome to join me in mulling over the words of yet another French author, the noted gourmet Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. "The destiny of nations," he wrote, "depends upon the manner in which they feed themselves."

Interested parties know where to find me. I'll be at my keyboard: changing the world, one doughnut at a time.

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