The Devil’s in the Diet

continued (page 2 of 3)

I woke up fat about 10 years later. There you were, standing by the front door in jeans and a black leather jacket, sucking on a Turkish cigarette, smirking. You looked like a cross between Elvis and Methuselah. I went back to church.

How you laughed when I carried the Weight Watchers scale back to the kitchen. “You’re kidding, right? That little plastic thing?” Night after night, you sat in my kitchen, strumming your guitar and howling. “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus sitting on the counter of my kitch-eeeen.”

Of course, you were right. The UCWW had been a swift and certain path when my enlightenment was a mere 7 pounds away. Three decades later, nearly 50 pounds stood between me and My Goal, and it was soon apparent that the UCWW could deliver neither quick nor dramatic relief.

Now I was in crisis. I needed rules! Discipline! Judgment!

Overeaters Anonymous HOW (“Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness”), a sect of the original OA, offered just that. What the Amish are to the Mennonites and the Hasidim are to Orthodox Jews, the HOW group is to the original 12-step food program. Like other breakaway groups, OA HOW-ers speak their own language. Food is “a substance,” and in some quarters must not even be named: “I lost my abstinence on a round, brick-oven-fired dough substance, topped with a red vegetable substance and melted dairy,” one fallen member reported.

Adherents are also careful to distinguish their appearance. Rather than growing curling peyos like the Hasidim, OA HOW-ers carry their food in Tupperware wherever they go. A traffic delay or even being taken hostage by terrorists is, in this creed, no excuse to miss a weighed and sponsor-approved meal—sponsors being the elders of the sect, who lead new supplicants through a daily practice that includes the “turning over” (telling another) of one’s every morsel before the day begins, as well as “quiet time” (meditation), self-reflection, and confession of sins, dubbed “step work” or “step journaling.”

The OA HOW “food plan” was the original UCWW, minus a couple of ounces of protein and plus a prohibition against flour, sugar, and wheat. And unlike in my church-basement days of old, here the creative possibilities discovered within the portions of approved food were not greeted with enthusiasm. When I reported the happy result of combining a vegetable and broth substance in a blender to make a fabulous soup, Sponsor put her hands over her ears and shook her head violently.

“That is mixing,” she said. “You are clearly not willing to surrender your obsession with taste. Food is fuel. Do you worry about how the gas you put in your car tastes?”

I saw through the 90-day commitment I’d made to myself. For the duration, I ate every meal alone, struggled to balance my job with the prescribed three to four hours of daily observance (calls, meetings, reading, step work), shut down my social life, and spent my quiet time weighing and measuring the gasoline question. I lost 31 pounds. I was not, however, enlightened. I was half dead.

Eating is human, an instinct as central as breathing. Anyone who has gulped an ocean breeze knows that breathing is more than an oxygen-delivery system. It is a celebration of life, a prayer, a moment-by-moment decision to share something held in common, something that keeps us alive.

Appetite is more of the same. Fear of hunger spurred human settlement and civilization; it also explains politics and social mores, competition and collaboration. Fear of hunger, at its most extreme, can rationalize inhumanity and spur mere mortals to superhuman accomplishment. Fear of food, on the other hand, is a refusal to share the quest for security, the celebration of having achieved it, and the possibility of moving beyond elemental satisfaction to create art and delight and a better world—the fullest expression of the human spirit.

Dedicating one’s life to controlling and demonizing appetite is an exercise in self-loathing. And that is just the sort of down trend, the bad day you live for, isn’t it, my Mephistopheles? That soft opening of self-doubt is vulnerable to your greatest weapon—the wedge you drive between human instincts and the rational mind. Once the separation is achieved, you move in and incite war.

Subscribe to Gourmet