Understand: I am a number of things — actor, writer, personal trainer, professor. I read. I watch movies. I love college football. I waterski.
One thing I have never been is a nutritionist. In fact, I have been just about as nutritionally un-aware as one might be for the entire first half of my life, and only marginally improved for the second. As a child, I was such a ridiculously picky eater that my mother essentially gave up and allowed me cereal for dinner most nights of the week rather than battle me over my vegetables. Even in high school, I was sure I did not like apple pie.
Yes, apple pie.
It was not until a girlfriend actually pushed a slice into my face while I was driving — and thus defenseless — that I realised it actually tasted pretty good. Broccoli did not cross my lips until my first dinner at college. This is all true.
I did not learn that you could play with ingredients and deliver really amazing flavours until I was a waiter in Philadelphia during grad school. But still, we're only just talking about me getting into appreciating flavour. Health would be a few decades yet.
So believe me when I tell you — any of you who read or hear the eat healthy message with skepticism — I feel ya. It's only the last few years that I've been trending towards eating better, and not just tastier.
And this is not some holier-than-thou pitch. I'm as fond of a margarita and a stick-to-your-ribs BBQ as anyone; I'm only talking about making sure I've got my veggies and I'm not overdoing it on the ice cream and cake. Simple stuff.
But my wife enjoys the chemistry of cooking as much as the end result itself. And though I'm no slouch in the kitchen, our family's menu tends to follow her interests and inclinations. So when she suggested that she was going Whole30 with the start of the new year — very strictly eating only animal-based protein, vegetables, fruits, natural fats, and no sugars or anything the body mistakes as sugars — we knew our own diets would change some.
We were supportive, I believe, or at least for the most part. We eat together as a family most every night, so by and large we all had at least one Whole30-compliant meal a day. But the Whole30 thing was her idea and her mission, and we still intended on enjoying our pizza and our pancakes.
But Mardi Gras was approaching, and close on its heels Lent, and my oldest daughter was so impressed by what she witnessed in her mother that she decided she wanted to take on the challenge for herself, and what better time to start than Ash Wednesday? Concerned about her ability to meet the difficulties of the challenge on her own, my wife and I decided to join her. My wife knew what she was doing. I did not.
Understand, I'd had the conversations all through the month of January. Any trip to the supermarket, picking up one item after another: “Nope. Can't have that. Nope. Uh-uh. No.” I got that there was a lot I'd have to adjust in my thinking about food. That was not the surprise.
And — so far — it hasn't even really felt like sacrifice. The food I've been eating is terrific and I'm not really dealing with the withdrawal symptoms many people who do this fast experience.
No, what has been surprising — shocking really — is just how angry the past five days have made me. Not in my day to day dealings with people; in that sense I'm happy as a clam. I'm talking about an immense level of frustration and disbelief with how we as a society have allowed food manufacturers and producers to remove any sense of what is actually good for us.
What we've been fed for years, what most of us are eating right now, is barely a step above excrement. And I'm not exaggerating.
It boggles my mind what sugar has been pumped into. There's the obvious stuff: the brownie mixes and cakes, the cookies and Cokes. Of course. But (as I asked my waiter this past Thursday night) why is there sugar in my guacamole? Or in the can of peeled tomatoes? Or in the sliced ham?
And why so much? If you watched someone pour themselves a cup of coffee and then scoop ten teaspoons of sugar into it, you'd be dumbfounded. Now guess how many teaspoons of sugar are in your Grande Caramel Macchiato?
Yep. You betcha. Dieci.
Folks, there's no shortage of reading material and research into diet and metabolism and why it is that we are in such bad shape. And make no mistake — we're in bad shape. “The United States had the second-highest death rate from the most common form of heart disease, the kind that causes heart attacks,” notes The New York Times, citing a paper by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, “and…the highest diabetes rates.”
And yet the response of most is to prescribe a medication to bring down the high blood pressure, to lower the cholesterol, to help with the anxiety.
Let me ask you this question: If you couldn't hold a knife in your left hand without stabbing it into your right, would you suggest the ultimate solution be a better bandage for your right hand? Or might you consider putting down the knife?
Turning this around won't be easy. It takes attention and thought. And the problem is everywhere, perfectly hidden by familiarity. Imagine trying to give up cigarettes by watching Humphrey Bogart films.
But the alternative? Really? Just look at the research cited in that Times article, where US men are ranked last among 17 surveyed nations for life expectancy and US women second to last, with both having the least likelihood of surviving to the age of 50.
I mean, I know we Americans like our conveniences and all, but I think we've taken it too far.
We've made dying a piece of cake.