the end of diets

We awoke this morning to a wonderland of white, from snow falling quietly in the night.  We live near the beach in California but traveled Saturday to the small town high in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah where my wife’s father, John Huber, grew up in the years between the World Wars.  This home has been in the family for over a century; we are its keeper now.  Built in the Victorian farmhouse style, its thick stone walls are a storehouse of family tradition.  The Hubers had been farmers for as long as anyone could remember.  John’s grandparents brought their farming traditions when they emigrated from Switzerland in the 1860s.  Here, they planted apple and pear orchards, and built a creamery cooled by water from a mountain spring.  The males of the family kept cows and planted wheat, oats, potatoes and onions.  The women tended a large kitchen garden, helped in the fields when needed, and baked bread twice a week using their own wheat (ground at the local mill).  This was the life of the traditional farming family.

You’ve heard of the roaring ‘20s?  Not so for the farmers—those were hard times.  In the post-WWI recession, crop prices were terribly low.  In the ‘30s, recession turned to Depression and prices fell even lower.  There was seldom any money in the Huber home; they raised what they ate or bartered with the person who made it.  The Johnson family kept the local mill for grinding wheat; Uncle Cooney across the way smoked their hams.  (My wife has a childhood memory of him yodeling as he called his cows from pasture.)

Did I say hard times?  I wrote John’s memoir just before his passing.  The childhood he recalled had a warm and golden glow.  His grandparents were founders of his town and his closest neighbors were all related.  Forty-three first cousins lived within shouting distance of his home.  At the end of his life, John still missed the breakfast groats his mother cooked (a hot cereal of oats and wheat with unpasteurized cream from their cow), the hearty homemade breads, and the fried trout that the boys caught in the creek by their farm.  He remembered the comforting sight of the root cellar packed full in the fall with the crops that would carry them through the winter.  They worked long days in the summer but in the winter they spent quiet evenings around the wood-burning stove that cooked their food, heated the water, and warmed the house.  It was a treat, he recalled, to get an apple out of the root cellar, dip it in the teakettle to warm it, and then remove the peel in a single piece with his pocketknife.    

John was the last in his line to grow up on a farm; when he came of age he sought his fortune in the city.  It was the modern thing to do; the world was changing and ambitious young men didn’t want to get left behind.  If there was one dish that marked the shift from traditional farm food to the modern diet, perhaps it was the Angel Food cake.   The Angel Food cake, in contrast to the whole-grain breads John had grown up on, was light, white, and ever so sweet.  The ingredients came from distant factories not the local mill, so had to be purchased.  The cake required equal amounts of powdered sugar, granulated sugar, white refined cake flour, plus an eggbeater to whip the egg whites.  Welcome to the modern diet.  

John, in his lifetime, saw all the phases of the modern diet: cheap sugar and refined flour; hydrogenated shortenings, margarines, and vegetable oils; processed foods easily prepared in your kitchen; and finally, take-out and fast foods that made your kitchen redundant.   Setting aside chronic disease, there is another result of modern food—we gain weight.  From weight gain, a new fad evolved—the diet.  The word now meant a temporary deprivation where you lost enough fat for your friends to notice, before returning to what you were eating before.  You could write a book about all the diets that have come and gone.  As noted in the post The Skinny on Being Overweight, eating less refined carbs lowers both blood glucose and insulin, which reduces stored fat.  From this concept came the Atkins Diet, which was a redo of England’s Banting Diet of the 1800s.

The French have a different approach to food.  Though they enjoy sweet buttery sauces and pastries, they are blessed with trim figures and a low rate of heart disease.  This is called the French paradox.  What was missed in our understanding of their diet was a strong discipline about food:  The French eat multiple courses but small servings; they don’t have the American disdain for whole foods like vegetables; and there is little between-meal snacking.  Well that has been changing—there is now a McDonald’s on the Champ-Elysees in Paris and the French are gaining weight and resorting to a most American mistake: le diet.

Last week the N.Y. Times wrote about the French take on the Atkins Diet—the Dukan Diet, the creation of the latest diet millionaire, Dr. Pierre Dukan.  The article was pimping a new book about Dukan’s diet.  What I found most fascinating about the story (“The French Diet You’ve Never Heard Of”) was the reader’s contempt, as shown in their comments.  The Times readers, at least the ones writing, are totally done with diets.  They recognize the absurdity of a temporary change to solve a long-term problem.  They were angry—with the N.Y. Times for recycling a discredited concept—and were calling, I thought, for a return to wiser food traditions. 

This brings us back to the Huber home, and their food tradition.  The table where I write is in the old parlor.  Before me (because of the thick walls) is a beautifully trimmed window.  Still standing in the distance, under a mantle of snow, are the sheds where they kept the milk cow and chickens.  In the foreground is the area where the kitchen garden once grew.  Close by is the root cellar.  Writing John Huber’s memoir was hard because it was my first book.  But there was a hidden blessing:  He shared with me all the charming details of how people ate before food was made in factories.  As noted, the source for Word of Wisdom Living is the three-legged stool of science, food tradition, and scripture.  Our quest is not a diet to lose weight, but each reader’s discovery of how to eat and be well.  This is a journey best made together, though our answers will vary as we do.

Please comment and share your best healthy food discoveries.


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Reader Comments (17)

I recently finished reading Intuitive Eating which espouses the same philosophy--no more dieting. I found it an interesting and informative read.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

My MIL gave me this recipe and it is a family favorite. We love how nutty it tastes and often serve it plain or with fresh strawberries (no sugar added to strawberries). We follow the Eat to Live program from Dr. Fuhrman, so we don't make this cake often, but it is a good alternative when you have company and they expect a dessert. Enjoy!

Whole Wheat Angel Cake

6 eggs separated

1 ½ cups sugar

½ cup water

½ tsp. vanilla

½ tsp. lemon juice or extract

¼ tsp. almond extract

1½ cups whole wheat flour

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. cream of tartar

Beat with mixer the yolks, water, sugar, flavorings for 5-7 minutes using
small bowl, then transfer to larger bowl. Mixture should be very thick and
creamy. In another bowl whisk flour and salt together. Add to yolk mixture
gradually, continuing to beat with mixer. Clean beaters to remove all of
the egg yolk mixture, then beat egg whites and cream of tartar together
until stiff but not dry. DO NOT allow whites to stand, fold into first
mixture immediately. Bake in ungreased angel food pan for 60 to 70 minutes
at 325 to 350 degrees. Invert pan and cool completely before removing.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

One thing that I love is participating in Bountiful Baskets, it's a food co-op where everyone pools their money so we get great deals on produce. Every week it's a surprise as to what we will get and it has been so much fun trying new fruits and vegetables, plus we get more than if I was to purchase it at the store. And it motivates me to use it up, so I know that we have been eating more produce than before. Occasionally I will also add cases of fruits to my order which we have loved too. Two weeks ago we got a case of organic fuji apples and we have been enjoying them many different ways, we have made juice, applesauce, eating them fresh of course, and I just had to make an apple pie :), we put them in our smoothies. This last time we got a case of oranges, so I am looking forward to juicing those, yum!

We have been planting a garden for the past few years, some years have been better than others, but it is always such a nice feeling to be able to walk out my back door and pick some things for dinner, or see my three girls out the window sneaking raspberries from the bushes :)

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Herbs! A few years ago while studying the WoW I came across the mention of herbs. I knew that to mean vegetables but also wondered about actual herbs. Could I even name more than 2 of them? How are they used? Are they hard to grow? I set out on a quest to find out more. I am happy to report that this year I am growing more than a dozen varieties of herbs in my garden. There is nothing better than being able to run out to my back porch and clip some fragrant, delicious herbs right when I need them. I start them from seed in the house and move them to pots outside when they are ready (with the exception of Basil which gets planted directly in the garden in larger quantities!). Each year I add a new one to my little garden (it motivates me to learn how to use it!).

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmie

When I have told people about this blog, I have sometimes called it a "diet blog" knowing the title does not give it justice. I have incorporated WOW into my current stint at Weight Watchers. They too don't like diet - my leader calls it a "live it."

Thanks for all the great Healthy Change suggestions Skip!

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee

Several years ago I went to a naturopathic doctor to treat my depression. She suggested the blood type diet (not as a diet, but as the way of eating). As I read it (I am type B), it seemed that the foods you should eat are pretty much whole foods. Even though my type was one of the more meat eating types, it still only recommended small portions a couple times a week. In fact, everything seemed to be recommended in moderation. It also recommended the healthiest forms of whole foods- organic, grass-fed, unpasteurized. As I started to follow this way of life I noticed how much better I felt. I was losing weight even though I was eating just as much and I wasn't as depressed. I had more energy as well. I don't think it was necessarily because of that specific book and it's methods, but more because of the moderation and the fact that I was no longer eating a bunch of processed junk.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I've been following your blog for weeks now and love it! I especially appreciate this thoughtful post on food and tradition.

Early on in our marriage, my husband and I began a quest to establish a healthier diet and lifestyle than we had grown up with. Our parents both cooked primarily from scratch, but relied heavily on store-canned foods (especially cream soups), meat, and refined sugar and grains. In all fairness to my dear mom, she did her best and raised four fairly healthy daughters; she merely followed the trends of society. She did make homemade, whole wheat bread and serve us adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. She also gardened and preserved many things like peaches and green beans. Slowly, though, as I learned to prepare food for my own children, I realized that many of the dishes I grew up on weren't healthy, after all! By taking baby steps, my husband and I have little by little been able to create a new food tradition for our little family (over the course of four years or so). For us, that has meant using minimal amounts of white flour, white sugar, and white rice, eating primarily plant-based meals, enjoying a variety of whole grains (brown rice, lentils, oats, whole wheat, etc.), and eating as many fruits and vegetables as we can (and as many as we can get the little ones to eat! That is still a challenge...) I guess one might call this a whole-foods diet (we do eat butter, milk, and eggs, as well). We still love treats, but those are often chocolate smoothies with nothing but a banana or a tiny bit of honey for sweetness, or my "healthy" cookies made with coconut oil, a little bit of brown sugar or honey, oats, and whole wheat flour. I love, love, love to bake and have decided to continue to bake for my family--fresh, whole wheat breads, healthier cookies, and the occasional splurge of brownies or cake.

Our diet is far from perfect--and we're not exactly where we ultimately want to be, but when I look at how far we've come, I can honestly say that we're far better off than we were! We feel blessed with relative good health and have four very healthy, sturdy and strong children. God seems to be leading us in the changes we have made and has blessed us abundantly.

I, too, have a great love of the past and have a dream to someday live a more similar lifestyle to those who have gone before us-- to own our own milk cow, keep chickens, grow a large garden and cultivate our own orchard. The possibilities are endless, and I hope to one day realize some of these dreams! Thanks for all that you do to help inform, motivate, and encourage others in regard to healthy living!

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Stephanie, I hope many, many readers take note of your four-year search for the optimum diet. The last century was marked by reckless experimentation with processed foods and a rising rate of chronic disease. If enough people act as you have acted, this century can be the century of "reformation". In this we keep whatever is good, and eliminate all that is bad for us. You say you're not done, but you've done very well thus far.

March 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you for this beautifully written post. Your point rings so true: real traditions will stay with us long after fads have faded. And stories like this one mean so much to me and help to remind me what is essential when it comes to the food we put on the table for our families.

I am so grateful to have been raised with healthy food traditions, but I am certainly still tempted by convenience foods, especially with young children needing three meals a day (and then some)! I would love to read a post on preparing healthy snacks for children. Snack time is when I often find myself reaching for the pre-packaged foods.

Thank you again, for your thoughtful posts. I appreciate the time you put into this blog very much.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZane

The discovery of your blog has literally been an answer to a prayer. A friend forwarded me your link, and as I began to read post after post, your slant on nutrition rang repeatedly true. The Lord's health code for His Saints, based in the Word of Wisdom, must trump every other fad diet or latest book.

I was especially moved by your thoughts on sugar: never bring a box or bag of candy or cookies into the home, but enjoy it by the single piece, purchased occasionally. This is like a revelation for me, and it will become part of my dietary changes I'm making.

After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years ago at age 46, I suffered through joint pain and medication for some time before I felt strongly that I should overhaul my and my family's diet: eliminate refined sugar, focus on whole foods, and watch portion sizes. After four weeks of an all-out effort on this, I feel that a miracle is occurring: my joint pain all but disappeared the first week into my new eating habits. After four weeks, I'm still waiting to see if it is coincidence, or truly a solution for me, one that I CAN CONTROL.

Thank you for your beautifully written blog, chock full of nutrition info that I feel is "right on". I am now a faithful follower.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMacy

I find this blog refreshing. I live out of the Utah beltway ( in NY) and in a world where daily the winds of confusion blow, it is nice to have another anchor. We often think that the confusion in the world is only in morality and politics...which is certainly true,however we are bombarded at the most basic level.
It makes sense if you think about it, if free agency and our bodies are truly THE gifts given to have us to become eternal, wouldn't that be the first thing to attack-subtly...over generations. I also ponder if timing was also planned. Is it a coincidental that as greater ... nobler generation come to earth we are so upside down with our eating that it is hundreds of years out of our psyche.
I have been learning from you. I just found this blog last week and my husband and I have already had several discussions about it .
Keep up the good work.
Applauding and shouting Bravo from NY ( can you hear me)

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

this year, i've been eating atleast 50% raw foods, which is my way of making sure i get plenty of vegetables and fruit. it's amazing what a difference it makes in the way i feel - physically as well as emotionally.

i just wanted to comment and say THANK YOU for this blog. it's so refreshing and honest, and i look forward to every new post!

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterangela hardison

Thanks for your blog - it is a wonderful reminder of how we should all be eating. You know what would be wonderful to have though? A page with all of your reminders to date that we can print out and see - all at once. Or one at the end of the year.... Maybe???

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

This is a great post, but it reminds me that I need to create not only a healthy physical approach to eating but a healthy mental approach to eating as well. I have a few people very close to me who have suffered from eating disorders, and they have great insight into overall healthy eating. While not all eating disorders can be avoided, there are things in a family that can contribute to insecure feelings about food and body image as a result. I have a friend who cannot eat anything without hearing her mother's voice in her head, and she grew up in a home that ate completely organic, mostly raw, healthy foods. For my own family, I want to focus on healthy eating but still be well-rounded and not completely outlaw certain foods. If there are lots of foods that are completely restricted, like they were for my friend, it will likely create a whole new set of problems to battle. My ultimate goal is to raise children that love healthy, good-for-them food with healthy body image as well.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I have never liked the idea of dieting myself (it always seemed wrong and unhealthy in some way), but when I started working and had to commute by bus instead of biking, I suddenly gained a lot of weight and started feeling uncomfortable in my own body. I was also surrounded by a lot of negativity and stress, which drained me of energy which made me take to chocolate, going out to get some fresh air and sunshine during my lunch hour meant having to eat at my desk, and lunch often consisted of a store made salad and some bread or mashed potatoes with flavour, which all didn't suit me well since I need more substantial food during the day to keep energy levels up. For the first time in my life I started toying with the idea of dieting, but then I came across the book "The French Women Don't Get Fat" by Mireille Guiliano and started reading it, realizing that one of the reasons I felt so crappy was because I for the first time in my life had deviated from the way I grew up; eating home made, unprocessed food and proper meals and going places by foot every day. So I started packing my own lunches, including a piece of dark chocolate for pudding, and I started to walk 20 minutes to the bus to work instead of taking the closest one, and suddenly I had energy to get off the bus home before the point where it got stuck in the rush hour traffic and walk 30 minutes home. Within weeks I felt so much better, I could handle mean bosses and coworkers on the brink of a nervous breakdown without getting stressed out or feeling down myself, I had energy to do things in the evening. The funny thing is that I actually lost more weight doing these simple changes than a coworker who was dieting to get thinner for her wedding, and while she complained about fatigue, I was bouncing up and down with new found energy. No need to say, my belief that dieting doesn't get you anywhere is now firmer than ever. I do eat unhealthy things at times, I do even occationally eat ready made food, though no "light" foods as I am sceptical to food additives and "light" food contain more additives, I just eat healthy (which should be proven by the fact that I my response to most of the healthy goals this far has been "I already do that!") and I add a bit more excersize every now and then.

Laura, I grew up mainly with my mother, who generally cooked very healthy food in spite of workin full time, ready made fish fingers and black pudding were "emergency food", tacos where "baby sitter food", cakes and pancakes where for "soup days" or festive days. This doesn't mean we couldn't have cream tea on a normal thursday because there had been a dull or hard week, we had done well on a test at school or just generally felt like it, but this wasn't the norm. At home, we ate what we were served, we did however never have any restrictions when it came to eating outside the house. If we wanted a hot dog when we were at the zoo, that was fine, if a friend invited us to a birthday party at McDonalds, that was fine too. Candies were for Saturdays only, or Easter or Christmas, and I have to admit that once I could go to the shops and buy my own candy it got a bit overboard for a while, until I realized that it was much more fun to go to the movies or buy stickers or books with my money than to buy candy for it. I think my parents did a good job in teaching us to eat well and get a balance between healthy and less healthy food.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

Is not Canola Oil genetically modified Rapeseed oil? I stay away from it. I really like your website. Many socials serve foods that are truly making us sick, NO PUN INTENDED.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebbie

Rebbie, thanks for your comment on canola oil. Yes it is mostly GMO rapeseed oil. See the box in the post of this week titled "Inedible Oil?" Canola oil is a mixed bag: Yes its GMO, Benefits are best omega 6:3 ratio, high temp performance, and available organic and cold-pressed. I have assumed that organic means non-GMO but I have not seen evidence. The other good higher-temp oil is probably peanut oil. Best to you.

April 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

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