Friday, February 1, 2008

Hungry?



Hungry: Lessons Learned On The Journey From Fat To Thin
By Allen Zadoff
Da Capo Press, $19.95 cloth
ISBN 0-7382-1105-2

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have mentioned it as part of their health care reform packages. Nary a newscast can pass without at least one story about it. HMOs around the country are preoccupied with treating or better yet, preventing it. Obesity is the new priority for the medical community in the United States. With the increasing girth of Americans we also have the peripheral diseases: hypertension and diabetes.

Diet books are a staple of the publishing industry. They come in all shapes and sizes, and offer everything from ways to increase willpower to specific foods to eat to lose weight. The grapefruit diet, anyone? And the writers of these books often become rich and famous, appearing on talk shows and on magazine pages touting their solution to the fat problem.

Allen Zadoff takes a different approach. In his book, Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey From Fat To Thin, Zadoff tells us that it was when he stopped dieting and let go of the pursuit to drop pounds and tried a different approach that he actually lost weight.

“From the time I was a young boy, I loved to eat,” Zadoff begins the book. He loves Devil Dogs, Doritos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Drakes Coffee Cake; the list is endless.

He divides the book into four parts. The first, “What I Believed on the Way Up the Scale,” details some of the dead ends, missteps, and false ideas Zadoff encountered on his way to more than 300 pounds. “I went on plenty of diets in my life: Weight Watchers, Scarsdale, Slim Fast, Diet Center, Jenny Craig, Medifast. They all worked for a while, but then my willpower failed me.”

His acting teacher later tells him, “You have to find out why you’re eating so much. If you find out why you’re eating, you’ll be able to stop.” So he launches into a search for the root cause of his obseity. That search lasted thirteen years. At the end, he is no closer to a solution. “Through it all,” Zadoff writes, “I clung to my teacher’s idea that knowing why I overeat would set me free.”

For twenty-eight years, Zadoff searches for a cure for his obesity. He characterizes himself as a junkie, like someone stuck in the clutches of heroin. He is an addict.

The breakthrough comes in the third section, but it may not be what the reader expects. Zadoff tells us that there are no magic diets. “You probably want me to give you a diet. More than a diet. You want a magic formula that will solve your problem forever. That’s not what I have to give.” And he is right. This is not your usual diet book.

He uses a stoplight as a food model. He wants readers to write down the foods they cannot handle. These must be foods over which the reader has no control. If she opens the box or bag, she eats the whole thing. There is no possibility of self-control. These are the red light foods. “Now make a list of behaviors around the foods that you can’t handle,” he tells us. This list is labeled Red Behaviors. Next comes a list of foods that sometimes cause problems—yellow light foods. And then there are the foods you can eat, and stop eating, without a hitch—you guessed it, the green light foods.

The red foods are the triggers—therefore you most avoid them. They are the smack to the overeater’s junkie personality. So these red foods are off the table. Period.

Zadoff goes on to say that he eats only three meals a day without snacks. He plans the meals with foods he knows he can handle, and then he sticks to the plan. He also throws away his scale. “When I began my journey toward thin, I bid adieu to the scale. I did not weigh myself before or after I lost weight.” He does not place importance on weigh-ins; a scale is just a tool for him to use, or not use on his journey.

He ends the book by discussing what he knows now, present tense, and what it is like to live this way day to day. I think the most important note about this book is that what Allen Zadoff says is not earth shaking or new. It is a simple equation: an obese person is a food addict and therefore must change his behaviors. An addict cannot continue to take even a little heroin. So a food addict cannot take even a little cake. As someone once told me, it is eat to live not live to eat. Food is fuel, nothing more, and we must maximize the quality of the food to get the most bang for the calorie.

Ultimately, that would be my assessment of this book: he tells us what is common sense, or what we should already know. If you need a reminder, if you need the reaffirmation, then read the book.

To understand why Americans are obese and why this is such a powerful issue, we need to delve into the psyche of the country.

Americans are fat because they have always gotten whatever they wanted. We don’t like to be frustrated in our quest for the perfect life. And what does that perfect life look like: the large, palatial house in the suburbs, the two or three cars in the garage, the big screen TV and surround sound system, the overstocked refrigerator, the bathroom that is the size of a basketball court, the matching walk-in closet, the endless shopping and eating and consuming. Again, I think of Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

We call the generation that lived during and after the Second World War the “greatest generation,” a phrase that became the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about them. They are considered the greatest generation because they fought tyranny and evil and won. They survived. But they also survived shortages and empty store shelves, depressed economic conditions, and, intensely real hardships. Today’s Americans could not survive under such conditions. The scary thing is, with the way the economy is going, they may be facing such conditions in the near future.

We are fat because our lives, in some ways, are too easy. There are too many luxuries, too much excess, too much fat in nearly every corner of American society. We need to readjust our priorities. We need to rethink the things that make our lives complete. It is not the number of things we own, or the amount of food we stuff in our mouths. We do not need huge portions at our restaurants to make us feel as if we got our money’s worth.

If you want to blame it on the war on terror, or the natural course of things, the United States is still suffering. There is a leadership vacuum. The days of the empire may be numbered. We need to realize we are like everybody else. We are no different. We have lived telling ourselves we are the most important people, living in the most important nation, and that we wield the most power. We are the anointed ones in a gilded age. But the woods are burning and it’s time to wake up and smell the smoke.

Here is the reality: human beings all look the same naked. You can tell the American, though. He’ll be the fat one. It is time for us to behave like reasonable human beings instead of mindless, hyperactive consumers of anything and everything we touch.

I agree with Allen Zadoff when he emphasizes that it is not really a diet an obese person embarks upon, but a way of life. There is no going back to the way we were. Let’s introduce a new paradigm in America. Feed the mind instead of the body. Let’s go back to the spiritual, the intellectual, the deeper resonance of home and family, hard work and discipline. Let’s lose some pounds, refocus our lives, and prepare for what’s to come. Let’s be hungry once again.