About the Author
Mark Schatzker is an award-winning writer based in Toronto. He is a radio columnist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail, Condé Nast Traveler, and Bloomberg Pursuits. He is the author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor and Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Dorito Effect ONE
“Things” and “Flavors”
IN THE early autumn of 1961, a thirty-seven-year-old housewife and mother named Jean Nidetch was pushing a shopping cart through a Long Island supermarket when she bumped into a woman she knew. “You look so marvelous,” her friend said, and for a sweet moment Nidetch basked in the compliment. Unfortunately, her friend kept talking. “When are you due?”
Nidetch was not pregnant. At the time, she stood five seven and weighed 214 pounds, which marked her, in today’s parlance, as obese, although Nidetch didn’t know what that word meant, or that the obese were, at that very moment, coalescing into a demographic ripple that was on its way to becoming a wave.
Nidetch had been to see diet doctors in New York. When their advice didn’t work, she headed across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where the diet doctors proved to be just as useless. She had tried every diet there was, and every one of them worked: She always lost weight. But then she would gain it all back—and more. Jean Nidetch could stop eating, just not for very long. She loved food too much. She loved savory things like pizza and meat, and sweet things, too, like cupcakes and soft drinks. Nidetch wasn’t one for big breakfasts, but that was because she would get up at three in the morning to gorge on cold pork chops or baked beans right out of the fridge. In summer, if an ice cream, pizza, or sandwich truck zoomed by without stopping, she would take off after it. And when visions of jelly beans began dancing in her head, she would rifle through her son’s pockets looking for some. But what Nidetch especially loved were cookies. When she started eating them, she couldn’t stop. She was addicted to them.
The day Nidetch was mistaken for pregnant, she phoned the New York City Department of Health’s obesity clinic to make an appointment. Not long after, she found herself in a room full of similarly overweight women. An instructor walked in who was so “slender” that Nidetch decided right there on the spot that after the class she was going to have an ice cream soda. The instructor handed out a sheet of paper with a list of foods the women were allowed to eat. Nidetch saw nothing new. She had whole albums filled with similar diets at home, none of which she’d ever been able to follow for very long. But once again, Nidetch tried. She gave up pizza, cake, and ice cream and started eating vegetables and fish. Every week, she went back to the obesity clinic, and every week she lost weight—two pounds.
It was progress, to Nidetch at least. The slender, ice-cream-soda-inducing instructor thought differently. She looked at Nidetch and said, “What are you doing wrong?” And as gallingly insensitive, perhaps even abusive, as that might sound, the instructor was right. The truth is Nidetch wasn’t following orders, at least not completely. It was the cookies. She was feeding on them in secret. On the way to the clinic, she would sit there on the subway, constructing lies to explain her lack of weight loss, lies that got more and more elaborate with each passing week—I’m constipated, I’m retaining water, I’m premenstrual. By the tenth week, the shame had gotten so bad that she couldn’t even look at the instructor.
Nidetch couldn’t bear it any longer. She had to get her cookie secret off her chest, so she phoned six fat friends and invited them to her home and confessed. Her friends were supportive. She had a “right” to eat those cookies, they said. They did stuff like that all the time. One friend hid chocolate chip cookies in the cupboard behind dishes. Another hid snacks behind cans of asparagus where no one would see them. All of them confessed that they, too, got up in the middle of the night to eat. Toward the end of the meeting, something seemingly insignificant happened that would change the course of Nidetch’s life. One of her guests said, “Jean, can we come back next week?” The next week, they brought three more fat friends. The week after that, four additional fat friends joined them.
If this sounds to you like the beginnings of a true-life fairy tale of one woman fighting the odds to attain personal beauty, celebrity, and vast wealth, you’re right. Within two months, the weekly meeting had swelled to forty women. A year after the “When are you due?” question, Nidetch was down to 142 pounds. One night, after one of her increasingly popular meetings, a businessman who’d lost 40 pounds thanks to Nidetch suggested she turn her “little project” into what it so clearly deserved to be—a business. She did. Within five years, 297 classes were being held in New York City alone, and there were 25 franchises in 16 states. In 1978, H. J. Heinz, the company that makes the famous ketchup, bought her business for $72 million, making Jean Nidetch the Horatio Alger of weight loss. You’ve probably heard of it. You may have even heard this near-mythical story before. Jean Nidetch named her company Weight Watchers.
NIDETCH’S SOLUTION to weight loss lay in collective willpower. Weight Watchers wasn’t the first diet to push this method. Overeaters Anonymous, which is also based on group support, was founded three years earlier, in 1960.
Group support was just one way people could lose weight. The year after Weight Watchers launched, a high-living photographer put the opposite spin on dieting with The Drinking Man’s Diet: How to Lose Weight with a Minimum of Willpower, which sold more than two million copies. It was joined that same year by another liquid solution to trimming down: Diet Pepsi. A few years later, a British biochemist introduced the Cambridge Diet, a tough-love, low-calorie regimen designed to promote fat burning and shed pounds fast.
The pace of diets and dieting was starting to pick up in the 1960s. People were getting fatter. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the early 1960s, just 13.4 percent of adult Americans qualified as obese. A decade later, the percentage had ticked up more than a full point to 14.5 percent. (The increase during this period is even greater when obesity is measured by skin fold rather than the more simple body mass index calculation.) Obesity really got rolling, however, in the ’80s, and by the late ’90s, more than 30 percent of American adults were obese, more than double the early ’60s tally.
All that dieting, in other words, didn’t work. Despite Jean Nidetch’s life-changing insight, and the true-life miracles behind every weight-loss regime since, we continue, year after year, to gain weight. In Jean Nidetch’s day, obesity was a relatively rare condition. Now it’s common. Today, obesity is holding at 35 percent, nearly triple what it used to be. By the mid-2000s, the 1961 Jean Nidetch, with a BMI of 33.5—squarely in the midrange of “obese”—would have looked almost normal. Today there is extreme obesity, which hardly existed in the early ’60s. Back then, just a tiny slice of Americans met this qualification—0.9 percent. The “pregnant” Nidetch was herself forty-one pounds shy of that mark. Today it’s at 6.4 percent.
To put this in perspective, at a sold-out Pirates-Yankees World Series game in 1960, there would have been around six hundred fans in Yankee Stadium of a girth that verged on shocking. Today, there would be close to forty-five hundred, and no one is shocked by it. In the early ’60s, well over half of Americans were “slender” and of the nonslender, the vast majority was classified as “overweight”—they needed to lose a few pounds. It is now abnormal to be slender. Today, less than a third of Americans are slender, which is another way of saying more than two-thirds are either overweight or obese. Ninety million Americans—the populations of greater LA, New York, and Chicago multiplied by 2—now eat so much they are at increased risk of asthma, cancer, heart attack or stroke, reduced fertility, giving birth prematurely, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, liver disease, gallbladder disease, diabetes, and arthritis. The obese make less money (particularly obese women), have higher medical expenses and lower self-esteem, and are more likely to suffer from depression. After smoking, obesity is the leading cause of preventable death. And when it comes to morbidity—“a diseased state or symptom”—obesity is surging past smoking, drinking, and poverty.
Obesity is so rampant that it seems contagious. It’s an epidemic now, and it’s spreading to other countries—the British are gaining, the Chinese are gaining, even the French are gaining—which makes it a pandemic. There are frantic efforts to make it stop. Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous were just early tactics in a long war that would go on to include the Pritikin Principle, the Scarsdale Medical Diet, Slimfast, the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, The Zone, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, the Blood Type Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, the Master Cleanse, the DASH diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Raw Diet. Americans have eaten fat-burning grapefruits, consumed cabbage soup for seven straight days, calculated their daily points target, followed the easy and customizable menu plan, dialed the 1-800 number to speak to a live weight-loss counselor, taken cider vinegar pills, snacked strategically, eliminated high-glycemic vegetables during the fourteen-day induction phase, achieved a 40:30:30 calorie ratio, brought insulin and glucagon into balance, sought scientific guidance from celebrities, abstained from the deadly cultural practice known as cooking, tanned and then bled themselves to more fully mimic the caveman state, asked that the chef please prepare the omelet with no yolks, and attained the fat-burning metabolic nirvana known as ketosis.
It has all been a terrible, amazing failure. The average American man has gained twenty-nine pounds and the average woman twenty-six. Between 1989 and 2012, according to the market report “The U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market,” Americans collectively spent more than $1 trillion on weight loss. In that same period of time, obesity grew by more than 50 percent and extreme obesity doubled. The long battle against weight gain hasn’t been much of a battle—more like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.
What a strange problem. Despite living in a culture that prizes thinness above even wealth, we keep on eating. It’s as though we’ve created a new “diet-resistant” form of obesity that, like some kind of cancer, perpetuates itself at the expense of our own vitality. Kindergarten children now struggle with their weight. Fully one-third of boys and girls from six to nineteen years of age are overweight or obese.
And obesity is just the most visible manifestation of a deeper malaise. Food has become a life-threatening indulgence. It seems to be disrupting the very way our bodies run—straining our organs, distressing our bowels, and crashing our mood. Adult-onset diabetes had to change its name to type 2 diabetes because so many children are now being diagnosed with what was formerly considered a metabolic disease of grown-ups. Once upon a time, we ate to sustain ourselves. Now food itself is toxic.
SUGAR. That’s the latest answer, anyway. As I write these words, sugar—or “white death,” as some have taken to calling it—is igniting flares of panic and condemnation. A year or two ago, a panic over high-fructose corn syrup came through like a flash flood and then died down to a trickle. Saturated fat, which used to be deadly, is enjoying a renaissance while polyunsaturated fat, which at one time was seen as the antidote to saturated fat, is now under attack. Before fat it was carbs and before carbs it was fat, and if you go back far enough sugar pops up again. For the better part of a century, millions of people, almost all of them with a rudimentary or nonexistent understanding of biochemistry, have been taking part in a richly technical conversation about such phenomena as glycemic load, protein ratios, and serum triglycerides.
Part of the problem is human nature. We are all natural reductionists. We always want to find the single cause of this or that problem, because then it’s easy to come up with a silver-bullet solution. That sort of thinking works very well when it comes to car trouble—your alternator is fried, your air filter is clogged, your timing belt is worn out. (If it’s all three, it’s time for the scrap heap.) But it doesn’t work very well with nutrition, which is about a lot of things. The list of essential vitamins, fats, and amino acids includes twenty-four different substances. And that doesn’t include minerals, trace minerals, fiber, choline, or the very fuel of life: energy. But even when you add those to the list, along with starch in all its amazing forms and the micro-universe of fats, you still haven’t come anywhere close to describing the radiant complexity of the plant and animal matter that goes into our mouths, our stomachs and intestines, and eventually becomes part of our bodies.
That’s the other problem. Food is complicated. And when a species that delights in one-word answers faces a problem as complex but crucial as food, the result is not surprising: a decades-long kangaroo court in which we keep putting the latest evil nutrient on trial. The truth is, it would all be so much simpler if it really were just sugar’s fault.
But clearly, something—or things—did change.
Here’s one thing that definitely did not change: our genes. This is not evolution. There was no cataclysmic event—no meteor, no supervirus that wafted out of some secret government lab—that conferred a reproductive advantage to those inclined to obesity. Similarly, there has been no demographic influx of genetically obese immigrants who fundamentally changed the population. Make no mistake, there are genetic aspects that determine each individual’s propensity to obesity—I might be more susceptible to putting on weight than you because of traits I inherited from my parents. But as a group, we all have pretty much the same genes as we had in the 1960s. And that can mean only one thing: Something in the world around us has changed.
When you stop to think about it, the human body faces the same doozy of a problem as the nutritionists. It has complex needs. And it fulfills those needs with a very complex substance: food. How does it do that? How does a body know what it wants?
That, it turns out, is the part we’ve been messing with—the want part. Sugar has something to do with want, and so do high-fructose corn syrup, fat, carbs, and all those other nutrients we’ve been obsessing over. But the cause of the food problem will not be found in individual nutrients. We keep mistaking the mechanism of obesity for the cause. If we regarded smoking the same flawed way we understand food, we would say cigarettes are deadly because they cause cancer. Cancer is the how of tobacco-related mortality. The reason people smoke in the first place—the why—is that tobacco is addictive. People smoke because they experience a powerful desire to smoke. Jean Nidetch’s problem, similarly, was behavioral. It wasn’t that her body turned all the food she ate into fat, or that perhaps it was exquisitely efficient in turning refined carbs into fat. That’s what bodies do. Her problem was that she ate too much food. She wanted to eat. She could not resist the desire. And when it comes to wanting, food speaks its own special language: flavor.
Flavor, as we will see, is the aspect of the human environment that has changed. The food we eat today still seems like food, but it tastes very different than it used to. For the better part of a century, two complimentary trends have conspired to transfor...
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