Food, Susan Powter

Pocket, 1995, 542 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-56756-X

Food is a deceptively simple title for such a complex book. Everyone needs to eat. Whole industries have been created around one of humankind’s most basic desire. Heck, there’s even an industry with the goal of teaching people how to eat less.

Susan Powter’s follow-up to Stop the Insanity! remains primarily an unusually-detailed diet book, but that doesn’t stop it from providing the reader with a holistic look at food; what it is, how it comes to be in supermarkets, how it’s sold to us and how we use it as much more than simple fuel. Though it would be dangerous to suggest Food as an “ultimate” book on nutrition, it’s certainly provocative enough to strike fear, doubt and uncertainty in even the most convinced couch potatoes.

It’s not as if Powter doesn’t know what she’s talking about, couch-potato-wise: As she relates to us again, and again, and again, a series of emotional disasters made her bloat up to 260 pounds before she got a grip and made herself melt back down to her current 130-odd pounds. Susan Powter’s relationship to food is more complex than most of us but don’t worry; by the end of the book (heck, by the end of page 25) you’ll be told her whole story in excruciating detail. Over and over again.

We’ll come back to Powter’s particular manias in a short while, but let’s mention right away that Food is akin to the most unpleasant dietician you’ll ever meet. Organized in three part, Food gradually hammers down the usual American diet until nothing is left beyond tofu and organically-grown vegetables. “Stage One” is simple enough; spell “less fat” and you’ve mastered the essential of it. It’s not so simple, of course; Powter explains in tedious detail the “fat formula”, the wily ways of the fat industry and the insidious lure of fast food. There are recipes, calories tables and checklists: Food can be used as a reference book. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, which if course doesn’t mean you’ll be any more receptive to it.

Don’t worry yet; it gets worse. In “Stage Two”, Powter goes beyond the Fat paradigm and takes a chainsaw to the dairy industry, protein, sugar, chicken and everything else that makes eating good and just. If you’re not depressed by the end of that section, you haven’t been paying attention.

I’m not sure if it gets worse in “Stage Three”, where Powter turns her attention to chemicals, psychological issues related to food and other jolly topics. On one hand, the eat-well message gets more and more rigorous; on the other, Powter’s own tics and motifs become so intrusive as to trivialize what she’s saying.

Part of it is the Powter writing style; chatty, breathless as well as HEAVY ON CAPITAL LETTER AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!! It’s accessible, but best absorbed in small doses; otherwise, it’s like being stuck with a nagging shrew. What doesn’t help are the constant (and I mean constant) references to Powter’s life history, which eventually smacks of deeper problems than simply food addiction. (This isn’t as much of a catty comment as you might think; Powter herself acknowledges this, though it doesn’t make it any less annoying.)

It’s difficult to describe the ultimate impact of the book. On one level, yes, it’s hard to continue eating in the same way after reading the catalogue of potential horrors trotted out in Food. Most of her recommendations make a lot of sense. Heck, I even find myself somewhat sympathetic to casual vegetarians, which is something I never thought I’d write in a public forum.

On the other hand, I’m not seeing any behaviour modification in my own life after Food: You’ll only pry my red meat out of my cold dead mouth. (A potentially ironic statement, that!) Food is also, despite the breezy humorous tone, a deeply depressing book; post-Powter, food becomes not an obligation or a pleasure, but a chore and a highly complex chore at that.

Given the massive amounts of partisan disinformation in the food arena, it’s dangerous to suggest that there’s an ultimate source of information out there. Powter’s Food certainly isn’t, though it’s an exemplary piece of argumentation. If nothing else, that’s a good start.

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