Six years ago my uncle and his girlfriend (both on diets) and my son and his wife (who is vegan) were coming to our house for dinner. Since this was late summer on the east end of Long Island, I had a lot of wonderful, local, animal free-options. I roasted Japanese eggplants for a tomato/eggplant casserole, made a big green salad, sliced some additional heirloom tomatoes, chopped garlic for a simple olive oil and basil pasta, baked some biscotti, and had a lot of fresh peaches, plums and nectarines ready to grill for dessert. I thought this menu would please the whole crowd. Except that when my uncle and his girlfriend arrived, they looked at what I was cooking with a combination of panic and horror, and sorrowfully announced that there was not a thing they could eat — not a single thing. They needed meat. They were on Atkins.
Why didn't they tell my husband or me about this earlier? Because that summer everyone was on Atkins, and they figured they would just eat the protein. Did we have any cheese?
I had to do something fast and easy, and so decided to put some chickens on the grill, which is not necessarily as fast and easy as it sounds. We are on an island, and our local supermarket had a very small supply of organic, free-range chickens, which was what I wanted. Fortunately, I got to the market in time to purchase the last two birds.
I rubbed them with olive oil, seasoned them, stuffed quartered lemons and lots of fresh herbs in their cavities and pushed garlic under their skin, put them on the grill, opened a bottle or two of wine, and an hour or so later we had a pretty good meal. Two people had chicken plus a loosely packed cup of undressed salad greens, which is the pitifully small amount Atkins allows, and sparkling water. The vegan had everything except the chicken and biscotti, including a few glasses of wine. I've since learned white wine isn't vegan because eggs whites are generally used in the clarification process, but even if I knew this then I probably wouldn't have said anything. The rest of us ate and drank everything in sight.
The next day, a close friend told me he had just begun a diet based on blood type, the theory being that each type reacts positively or negatively with certain foods, and if you just learn what they are, you'll get healthy and lose weight. I said this seemed doubtful to me, since there are only four blood types, and the majority of the population is either Type A or O. He said it had to be better than Atkins.
I started to pay a lot more attention to friends and acquaintances that were on diets. Many had struggled with weight for years, maybe all of their lives. They gained, and then they starved themselves on some new diet, joined a gym, or swallowed supplements they hoped would work like magic. Some temporarily had success due to the reduced calories, exercise, or artificially quickened metabolism, became as hopeful as Liza singing "Maybe This Time," and then usually ended up gaining back the weight. Their determination and flexibility amazed me — they were so willing to try all of these dietary distinctions without a difference - schemes that were transparently just variations of taking in fewer calories, or swallowing speed with a fancy name. Some of the ideas were nonsensical. Can anyone really believe that blood type, grapefruit, or demonizing a nutrient necessary to sustain life is the answer to long-term health? Why, I wondered, were so many smart people on foolish diets? How did we ever get to a point where two thirds of the population in the United States needed to be? Did they need to be? Do some weight loss schemes that seem absurd, at least to me, really work? Those were the questions swirling around in my brain...along with what to have for lunch.
By the way, I've been on a diet ever since I memorized a little blue calorie counter when I was 12 years old.
Susan Yager is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and has written for a variety of publications on the topics of food and sexual health. She lives in New York City and the East End of Long Island with her husband and two cats (DJ: Left, Freddie: Right).