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Reformed glutton explains how to embrace food with respect

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Peter Kaminsky is a Brooklyn-based journalist, food writer and reformed glutton. His solution to losing weight, as described in this personal account, is to embrace the delights of food with respect, care and passion.

He describes a greedy affair with food and drink that went unchecked for much of his early adult life until his doctor warned him of his failing health. A dangerously overweight middle-aged man with rising blood sugar levels, he reconsidered his approach to the meals, both at home and away.

In short, he revised his lifestyle using Albert Einstein's principle that "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

The background to Kaminsky's dilemma is writ large. Malnutrition is no longer restricted to regions of our planet where food is scarce. Amid a surfeit of readily available calories, a newer form of malnutrition exists: a worldwide epidemic of obesity.

This is especially noticeable in the U.S., where a third of the population is considered to be obese. About a quarter of all Canadians have also reached this dubious milestone.

Solutions to this threat to human health and well-being are badly needed. Weight-loss programs are often expensive, bland, and in the long term, ineffective. Kaminsky's offering of sensible, affordable, and enjoyable dietary guidance is thus timely and worthy of praise.

The book provides a detailed approach to selecting and preparing ingredients in order to optimize the "flavour per calorie" (in Canadian terms, joy per joule?). Examples include using foods that are not processed, are as fresh as possible, and are of the highest quality that can be afforded.

Once these ingredients are bought or grown, they should be prepared using cooking techniques that will successfully integrate and accentuate flavours. In this manner, a fine and filling meal will result.

Kaminsky emphasizes that although this may necessitate the purchase of pricier items and lengthier preparation time, we will savour our food and be more satisfied with it. To borrow an old Afrikaans idiom, "Goedkoop is duurkoop" (Cheap is expensive).

Satiety, a generally pleasant sensation, is an easy and enjoyable way of moderating the amounts we eat. In contrast, empty calories, especially from highly processed carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice or refined pasta fail to add complexity to a meal. They do not result in a feeling of fullness.

Kaminsky also attacks lazy and irresponsible routes to adding flavour: lashings of salt, sugar or fat. Thankfully, he does not advise an absolute ban on these and other ingredients. Instead, he reminds us to consume them in moderation; just enough to bring out the natural goodness of a meal. The reader is even provided with a selection of the author's own favourite recipes, with step-by step instructions on their preparation.

Kaminsky does acknowledge that much of our eating occurs away from the controllable environment of a domestic kitchen. However, a restaurant or street-side café can be an excellent alternative, provided that its owners serve food that is made attentively and lovingly. There is a splendid serendipity in finding a small eatery that serves wholesome, flavourful portions.

Many of Kaminsky's anecdotes about memorable meals stem from his life in New York City, a place renowned for its rich culinary diversity. His many outings to remote regions of the U.S. as well as other countries prove that his theory is applicable elsewhere, albeit with a greater degree of compromise.

In one particularly important chapter he demonstrates how to eat well on the road, in airports, or other places where healthy choices are scarce. However, not even his enthusiasm and resourcefulness can brighten up one of his accounts, where he and his wife abandon the sad restaurant options in rural Wyoming and settle for a motel room supper of packaged snacks bought at a "mini-mart." Meals away from home are a fact of life for most of us, and this chapter deserves more than 11 pages.

What Kaminsky fails to tackle well is that meals are often not something over which the individual has full control. Instead, responsibility lies with those who determine food prices, distribution and large-scale meal provision such as in schools, hospitals and other public spaces.

Despite the best of personal intentions, we are likely to succumb to a vending machine with fizzy sweet drinks if no other choice exists.

A more serious and detailed critique of the ethics, politics and economics of food security can be found in the works of Michael Pollan, the American food writer best known for his 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma whom Kaminsky openly admires and acknowledges.

Hopefully, individuals planning to modify their own habits will read this inspiring book. However, copies should also go to ministers of health, mayors, hospital executives and others who make food decisions on behalf the public or their employees.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 J10

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