Monday, June 27, 2011

Off Escalators & On Oat Bran: the Ups and Downs of the Dukan Diet

My name is Mari-Beth and I’m a self-help junkie. I think the act of reading a self-help book will cause me to be better by osmosis. I’m the kind of person who reads a diet book while eating a piece of cheesecake, with the best intention to start eating healthier … tomorrow. If social anthropologists of the future want to learn about society today, our self-help literature is their gold mine. I mined The Dukan Diet book for insights on nutrition, psychology and culture. Dr. Pierre Dukan, the author, hails from France, the land of the notoriously slim. I have mixed feelings about The Dukan Diet, published in France in 2000, North America in 2011 and currently available in thirty counties. Some aspects are useful at best and interesting at worst; others are amusing at best and appalling at worst. I want to take what works for me and leave the rest, but every time this notion occurs to me I feel judged by Dukan as he continually reaffirms that this is a take it or leave it, all or nothing, kind of diet.

The diet itself consists of four consecutive phases: the “attack” phase (a short period of lean protein only, designed to shed pounds quickly); the “cruise” phase (three days of lean protein plus non-starchy vegetables for every pound you want to lose); the “consolidation” phase (for five days per pound lost you add minimal grains, cheese, fruit, and celebration meals); the “permanent stabilization” phase (for the rest of your life you can eat whatever you like, provided you eschew escalators, take 3 tablespoons of oat bran daily and commit one day a week to consuming only lean protein). We are reminded of the particulars of each phase often throughout the book, as Dukan includes many summaries, explanations and adaptations of his diet for people at diverse stages of life. Honestly, the phases are so straightforward and so well laid out on various websites that you need not read the book if the actual diet is all that interests you. But you would be missing out: Dukan’s assessment of why we are fat is just as intriguing as how he proposes that we change it.

It’s no doubt that the key to Dukan’s success lies in his understanding of the psychological profile of overweight individuals. His method is easy to follow (not to say it doesn’t take willpower, just that the rules are very clear), delivers quick initial results (providing the motivation to continue), and gives people a nonrestrictive diet to follow for the rest of their lives (to keep the weight off). In many ways the overly-prescribed nature of the Dukan Diet causes you to lose touch with your body, although obese people have arguably already lost this. Dukan purports that overweight people need to let someone else take control in the interim so they can regain control in the long term. Dukan has evidently worked with a number of overweight patients and understands their psychology. But much of his psychoanalysis applies to all people, not only those of us trying to lose weight. Whenever we approach something new, our instinct is to start out with an attack and see immediate results; eventually we peter out and want stability again. He insists that the all-you-can-eat protein days be followed to the letter, or else the ‘magic’ ends and you’ll have to count calories. Similarly, when I am used to eating well, eating naturally, listening to what my body needs, and I suddenly eat some refined, processed, sugary rubbish, my ‘magic’ ends. My body starts to crave more sugar, only now I know these cravings are unauthentic. This is the mark of quality self-help literature: when the help offered is not eminently applicable to any self, but any self can recognize someway the help is adaptable to their lives.

Food is psychological; we can’t pretend that it’s not. But our epicurean psychosis differs widely across cultures. In France, food is famously equated with pleasure. In North America, food is increasingly associated with guilt - and rightly so when you consider some of the junk that passes for food on our supermarket shelves. This difference has been widely discussed in various guises such as the French Paradox and Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don’t Get Fat. Although Dukan’s prescriptive diet varies greatly from the sensation-focused one that Guiliano discusses in her book, both French authors intrinsically understand a notion that Dukan calls “bene-satisfaction,” a term that indicates the combination of something that gives us pleasure and is good for us. Food, sex, a walk along the beach - all these things offer the opportunity for “bene-satisfaction,” a concept the French have mastered. Many North Americans still struggle with the food aspect of bene-satisfaction. Until we reach the understanding that the food that is better for us tastes better too, we’ve got a lot to learn.

Dr. Pierre Dukan
Luckily for us, Dukan claims that “one of the major merits of the Dukan Diet is its educational value.” I did learn a lot. Despite the Atkins craze a few years ago, I had no idea how proteins were metabolized by the human body, but thanks to Dukan I do now. Dukan’s diet may appear a bit wonky on the outset, but he guided me through the jungle of nutritional science and convinced me that his method was not only effective and useful, but also physiologically safe. Dukan’s nouveau food pyramid, a hierarchy of food values, has changed the way I look at my meals and snacks. He classifies food as: vital (proteins) essential (vegetables), necessary (fruits), important (whole grains), useful (starch), rewarding (cheese) and pleasure giving (treats). If knowledge is power, I do feel more empowered to make better food choices. Dukan refuses to dumb it down. He explains nutritional science in adult laymen’s terms, ensuring his explanations are accessible and relevant.

Dukan goes into many versions of his diet for children, adolescents, pregnant and menopausal women, even smokers. I can’t imagine putting a child or a woman expecting a child on any regimen of this sort. It is obvious Dr. Pierre believes that his Dukan Diet, Dukan muffins, Dukan galette and Dukan floating island dessert are the greatest thing to replace sliced bread. But the extreme measures of losing Dukan pounds are not for everyone. If you would like to drop a lot of weight and have trouble doing it on your own, you can do no better than to follow the Dukan Diet. For those of us who have only five or ten vanity pounds to lose, The Dukan Diet remains in interesting book, not a replacement for listening to our own bodies.

 Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club. 

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