01/29/2007 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fear of Food

Whenever I return to America, after my annual sojourn in Paris, there
is a certain culture shock of re-entry. There is the language, of course,
which seems to evolve faster and faster and becomes each year a little
more unintelligible.

There are the new television programs, the new stars, the new ratings.... all of which leave me so baffled that I return time and again to my beloved, reliable PBS. Science! History! Drama! And Jim Lehrer.

There are the new products in the supermarkets: Swiss cheese from
Ireland (!!!), buffalo steak in the meat department, rice milk in dairy,
and root vegetables from Central America whose names I cannot pronounce.

Even old, familiar products seem to have multiplied exponentially: an
entire aisle of shampoos at Walgreen's; a headache-inducing array of
aspirin; and no fewer than six shelves bristling with toothbrushes. And
-- quelle surprise! -- sex-enhancing gels and lotions alongside a
flamboyant choice of condoms, quite shamelessly displayed.

But one of the biggest changes I've noticed has happened stealthily
over the past decade: an obsession with food. For the very thin or the
very wealthy, this means an inordinate, consuming interest in specialty
products and five-star restaurants and high-priced kitchenware. For the
less affluent or the overweight, this means gargantuan portions of cheap
food, eaten in their home or in their car or in a fast-food joint.

Rich or poor, thin or fat, Americans have made food their passion --
and that passion has spawned a whole generation of celebrity chefs,
lip-smacking food programs. and an avalanche of cookbooks.

But here's the catch: it is a love-hate relationship, because in
America food also has become the enemy. Calories, cholesterol, trans
fats, sodium are some of the many perceived demons that are said to
threaten one's very existence. Where once a cigarette was "a nail in your
coffin", today it may be egg yolks or butter or southern fried chicken.
Not to mention sporadic alarms over tuna fish or spinach. Not to mention
the billions spent on diet pills, diet drinks, diet books, and diet fads.
We are goaded to gorge ourselves on super-size everything, and then are
badgered with guilt over our ballooning girth.

When I contrast this culinary paranoia with the French attitude
toward food, I am truly dismayed. The French do not nibble or snack, they
dine. They are rarely seen munching food on the street or in the Métro.
They tolerate their kids grabbing a bite at MacDonald's, but they strive
to teach them better, through compulsory school programs about food

"The French paradox" documented in recent years (eating well and
staying slim) is no more complicated than this: Eat what you love, in
moderation; have a glass or two of wine, preferably red; and get a little
exercise, such as walking briskly to the bakery (la boulangerie) or making
love in the afternoon (of course, après lunch!).

What better recipe for health and happiness?