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Eat, pray and pause: The virtues of eating less


No more eating while watching legal and detective shows

Chief Inspector Maigret had me worried. The understated French detective never managed to finish a meal, at least not in the Rowan Atkinson series I was watching on Amazon Prime. He would sit at the breakfast table, and just when I thought the croissant with coffee would make its debut, Maigret’s phone would ring, or there would be a knock at the door. And the poor man would leave the table — and the house — without eating.

But that, I now believe, is the reason the French stay healthy. Well, not exactly not eating, but eating less. American author-academic Michael Pollan lauds the French style of eating in a book called In Defence of Food.

Eat like the French

The book opens with ‘An eater’s manifesto’, which is as brief as it is illuminating. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” it says. “That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy,” Pollan writes.

First published in 2008, the book is a sharp critique of what is known as the Western diet (or what Americans eat, and what Indians are increasingly opting for) and looks at how not to succumb to industrial and even scientific pressures. “Most of my suggestions come down to strategies escaping the Western diet, but before the resurgence of farmers’ markets, the rise of the organic movement, and the renaissance of local agriculture now under way across the country [the U.S.], stepping outside the conventional food system simply was not a realistic option for most people. Now it is.”

In one chapter, the author urges readers to eat more like the French, Italians, Japanese or Greeks. Or like Indians.

We can certainly take a lesson or two from the French. “They seldom snack, and they eat most of their food at meals shared with other people. They eat small portions and don’t come back for seconds. And they spend considerably more time eating than we do. Taken together, these habits contribute to a food culture in which the French consume fewer calories than we do, yet manage to enjoy them far more.”

Table manners

Or we could follow the people of Okinawa — “one of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world”. They have a practice called hara hachi bu, which means they eat until they are 80% full. But, Pollan asks, how do you know that you are 80% full? Rely on internal cues and do not depend on what the eyes tell you, he replies.

Don’t think you have finished only when you see an empty bowl or packet in front of you, or when the TV show that you are watching while eating is over. As someone who has in recent times started watching a lot of television, I know what he is talking about. Note to self: No more eating while watching legal and detective shows.

There are some other tips that we can follow. Treat meat like a side dish. Try not to eat alone. “Communal meals tend to limit consumption,” he writes.

And eat only at the table — and, no, he says, a desk is not a table. “It is at the dinner table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation. At the dinner table parents can determine portion sizes, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed and gluttony and waste.”

Some of these concerns may not apply to Indians, but we need to press ‘pause’ too. Increasingly, we are eating out, eating alone, ordering in or gorging on snacks and fast food. “To reclaim this much control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts,” he writes.

Come, let’s go occupy our kitchen and dining tables.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 10:46:34 PM |

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