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The food, the fear, the facts

Author Barry Glassner worries that fat phobias and restrictive eating are robbing Americans of an essential part of eating: enjoyment.

February 19, 2007|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Americans are awfully messed up about food -- so thinks Barry Glassner, USC sociology professor and author of "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong." We imbue certain ingredients with an almost magical power to heal -- when, that is, we're not fearing them as poisons we must strip from our diet.

Glassner is a scholar of worry: His 1999 book, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things," examined a medley of items that panic Americans, out of proportion, he says, to their risk: poisoned Halloween candy, airplane crashes, exotic infections such as SARS.

On a recent lunch break, Glassner slowly relished beef tacos and fried plantains and talked about his latest book.

What made you want to write this book?

When I finished "The Culture of Fear," I realized I hadn't covered one huge area -- the fear Americans have of more or less everything that's for sale to eat. I'm also really interested in food.

You do seem to revel in descriptions of fine meals.

Yes, and one concern I've had is that so many Americans will just horribly restrict what they eat for one reason or another. Some will only eat in places that are recommended by the food elite. Others will only eat foods on a very particular, restricted diet. Many Americans are almost religious about what they eat.

You meant the title of your book -- "The Gospel of Food" -- quite seriously, then.

I think there are many gospels of food. There are people who worship at the altar of the late Dr. Atkins. And then there are people who are pure vegans. My view is basically eat and let eat. I think it's fine if people want to be vegans or follow Atkins. What concerns me is folks who are restricting themselves unnecessarily and missing out on pleasures of the table.

Such as worrying about saturated fat, refined carbohydrates or processed food?

There are people who select any, or several, of those. And I think there are a lot of people, especially in this country, who subscribe to what I came to call the gospel of naught -- this curious notion that the worth of a food lies in what it lacks rather than what it contains -- be it less fat, fewer carbs or fewer preservatives. I think that's a formula for eliminating a lot of pleasure.

Why do you think people in the U.S. have such attitudes toward food?

I think part of it is our Puritan roots. And a lot of it is that there's so much money to be made here by selling us one particular demonization or another, or one particular celebration or another, of a food. Every time we get hung up about something about our diet, sectors of the food industry jump in and benefit massively. If we're concerned about a particular fat, they'll sell us an alternative. If we're into oat bran, they'll sell us oat bran.

Are you arguing that people should just eat what they want?

I certainly think people should have a healthy diet. In no way am I arguing that people with particular health problems don't need to maintain the diet that their doctors recommend. I'm talking about the general population. A lot of people restrict what they eat because they get obsessed with whatever the hot diet book is, or whatever foodstuff is demonized or worshiped this month.

Let's have some examples.

So we had this period where you found oat bran in everything -- there was even beer with oat bran. Now, you can find omega-3 fatty acids in all kinds of things. I just saw it in pet food. We go from one to another of these things.

But shouldn't we pay attention to nutrition studies?

I think there are excellent studies, and I think we'd be crazy to not take good research about our diet seriously. At the same time, many studies get a lot more attention than they deserve. The general public often takes a study as something very decisive that goes way beyond what is actually found.

What are the problems with many studies as you see them?

The number of people in the sample is limited in some cases. And the self-reported food surveys used in studies have their limitations: It's difficult to remember with any precision exactly what you really ate. These problems wouldn't matter if differences were really great. The effect of smoking on lung cancer is something like 3,000%. If it's really only 2,000%, it's still a big deal. But if you look at nutrition studies, the effects are more typically 10%, 20%, 30%. All you need is a small number of errors for the finding to come close to evaporating.

What's your own philosophy of eating?

My motto is: Enjoy what you eat, eat in moderation, eat a diverse diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and everything will be fine. Following a healthy diet for most people who don't have special medical conditions is not really much more complicated than that. What we leave out in this culture is the enjoyment part. Enjoyment of a meal is important psychologically and emotionally -- and also important physiologically. There's research showing that.

Do you have an example?

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