Food & Drink: A few ounces won't end the world

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I READ recently of Michel Montignac, a man who is apparently both svelte and a millionaire, and whose weight and fortune derive from the same source: a diet. He who once weighed more than 20 stone and was nothing more glamorous than personnel director for Abbot Pharmaceuticals. Now he is - well, you've read this before.

All I know about the man is that he is 48, that he publishes his own books which have sold 1.6 million copies since 1987, that Paul Bocuse once cooked up a Montignac dietary banquet for 160 of what were described as France's 'culinary elite', and that he owns a string of gourmet shops selling Montignac-label foie gras, champagne and so on.

Well, it takes a miraculous amount of gall, not to speak of an excess of self-confidence, to peddle oneself in this way and make a fortune. But it has never required intelligence, knowledge or talent to make one's way in the world, and I see no reason why this should not be true in gastronomy. Lucky as I am to have a fat-destroying metabolism, I have nevertheless been perusing diets since my boyhood, out of sheer curiosity about the gullible of the world. I have known people whose acid insides must have resembled sulphur vats from eating naught but citrus fruit, and others whose visits to the facilities were on a bi-monthly basis from eating only proteins. I have known solid citizens to gag on grain and elegant women tremble at the sight of cottage cheese.

All were what I call optimists. That is, people who believed they could change their essential nature by some rudimentary quick fix, who could suddenly look like Twiggy, or enlarge their breasts, develop their pectorals, learn Chinese in a week, sit down after eight lessons and play the Emperor concerto or, being charmless, suddenly achieve whatever that year's goal was - a new job or the mate of their dreams . . . Diets are no different. We have an ideal in mind; we wish suddenly (the new year is a great time for such ambitions) to be able to conform to that ideal.

Mr Montignac, for instance, a little fatty, simply got tired of wedging himself in trees. He saw Papa and Grandpa as behemoths and decided he would not be like them. But, like many a snake-oil merchant before him, he had to devise something new: in this case, his crucial discovery - which is not unlike the fakir's or guru's message that making his devotees poor should be allowed to make him rich - that you could be both a gourmet and a dieter. Conveying his message to chefs and gastronomes was a welcome task for, while many would diet, few wish to suffer by so doing.

Restaurant sales of expensive dishes were falling; the world rebelled against cuisine minceur, nouvelle and whatnot; the new-sleek, who could afford it, wanted to taste the good things of life. Why not offer them a diet that could allow indulgence under certain conditions but would guarantee, more or less, results?

Mr Montignac's diet is based on his 'discovery' that if, in eating, one separates the three food families of fats, proteins and carbohydrates - that is, if one eats them separately, or only in determined combinations - one can indulge in all of them. For instance, proteins and fats, yes; add a carbohydrate, just a single chip, for instance, and the whole process breaks down. One may eat pasta or lentils - but not with meat. Have your toast at breakfast - but do not add butter. And wine is OK.

Depending on your own make-up, and the rigour with which you follow the Montignac diet, you may or may not lose weight. But there are as many variations, both in our genetic make-up and in our living (and sleeping) patterns, to suggest that what works for one will not work for another; and even if that were not so, the real question with a diet is not so much can you observe it and in fact reduce weight, but can you continue to observe it for a lifetime and maintain that weight reduction.

The simple answer is that you can - if the diet in question accords with your own tastes, your work and relaxation habits, your lifestyle, your friends, your family and a whole set of other circumstances. As even the most devoted food-faddist knows, there is nothing like an enforced trip, a conference, a set of meetings, a set of dinners out, a long or short holiday, or just a bout of plain, perverse gluttony, to ruin whatever controls you have put on your eating and drinking.

The true answer is to stick to whatever seems to suit you, to do all things in moderation, not to worry about your weight too much, and to enjoy your food in relaxed and comfortable surroundings. Mr Montignac is just the latest of a long chain of optimists and prophets. Another will be born tomorrow and make money off your grandchildren. Relax. The world will not come to an end over ounces or even a few pounds.