HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

A Prescription for Good Health

Throughout Sarah Ruhl's hilarious play, The Clean House, the women have been at loggerheads. The fastidious psychiatrist has been nagging her maid to clean, but the maid, who hates to clean, wants only to tell jokes. The psychiatrist has been nagging her sister to stop cleaning, but the sister likes to clean. The dying mistress of the psychiatrist's surgeon-husband (also his patient) has dropped in unexpectedly. The four women bemusedly confront each other.

One sister offers ice cream. The moment of peace is exquisite. The quartet sit around a bowl, dipping spoons into the cold creamy stuff, and savoring it. The flavor is chocolate. As the mistress remarks, "Who doesn't like chocolate. Crazy people." The maid sums up the ecstasy: "It must be what God eats when he is tired."

The women are not exulting over a bowl of carrots. The maid does not hazard: "When God is tired, he eats beans."

Nutrition mavens, though, have demonized ice cream and similar sweets. The mavens have divided food along Manichaean lines. "Good" food teems with whatever your body needs. "Bad food" teems with preservatives, additives, fats (the bad kind, not the good kind), and calories. Ice cream -- even the "pure" kind -- is "bad." Cream, sugar and chocolate are not dietary requirements. And supermarket ice cream adds guar gum and lecithin to the caloric bounty.

Even "good" food, moreover, may be bad. Tuna has mercury. Nuts -- those bits of protein -- are lethal for some children. Beef -- another protein morsel -- has cholesterol. Tofu has fat. This century has its own "angels on a pin" conundrums: is tuna better than salami? Margarine better than butter? And the food-oxymorons emerge: non-fat cheese.

Environmentalists complicate the confusion. We are over-fishing tuna -- which may be good, because of mercury, or bad, because we are dooming a species. We torture geese to make pate. My supermarket cooks lobsters behind the counter, to spare children the sight of black crustaceans turning red as they boil to their deaths, and to our dinners.

The mavens have pushed their parsing onto legislative agendas. New York and Philadelphia have banned trans-fats in restaurants. California may someday be a non-trans-fat state. New York City restaurants may soon post calories on menus. The Food and Drug Administration long ago banned additives that nobody can remember loathing; indeed, the substitute additives may eventually emerge as "bad." Web sites warn of the dangers embedded in food. The European Union recently banned nitrates, but OK'd seven new additives. (Without additives, some food will quickly rot.)

The mavens proffer two compellingly specious arguments.

They argue that "bad" food, even minute amounts, can make you sick. Yet we have banned some of the bad stuff, like sulfites, and it is hard to credit improved health to those bans. It is also hard to predict that people dining in Manhattan restaurants on trans-fat-free beef Wellington will be healthier than their counterparts elsewhere.

They argue that "bad" food is making Americans fat.

Admittedly, Americans are getting fatter, leading to increasing rates of hypertension and diabetes among adolescents.

Yet dessert is too easy a villain.

In The Clean House the ice cream is a treat. God eats it when he is tired, not daily. In our hedonistic mind-set we have turned the special delight into daily fare. But an occasional cone, or slice of cake, is not step one on a slippery slope to disease.

The women are sharing their treat. They are not each devouring a bowl. We Americans are not moderation-people. We yearn to live in McMansions and drive SUVs. We eat mega-servings at mega-meals. That truly is step one on the slippery slope.

Finally, in the play, the ice cream enhances sociability. The dips and swallows punctuate the women's conversation. Nobody sits alone in front of the television, noshing on a vat of ice cream.

A long-ago song proclaimed, "I need somebody to love." We Americans need somebody to blame. So we've demonized food. It is so much easier than blaming ourselves for our expanding girth. And we've sicced our legislators onto the bad stuff, urging them to ban trans-fats, sulfites, saccharin, sulfites -- whatever is the evil du jour.

Surely ice cream -- however fat and preservative-laden -- belongs in the prescription for a healthy life. Share a sundae with friends to celebrate a happy event.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2007

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